Kwame Onwuachi | With Every Rotation, A New Opportunity

Via The 25th Anniversary Issue, Under the Silver Moon

Written by

Julia Smith

Photographed by

Naoki Fukada

Styled by

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FENDI suit and shirt and MAURICE LACROIX watch.

The scene is frenetic but orchestral here in the second home to “the most important chef in America” in 2019, hailed by the San Francisco Chronicle. Kwame Onwuachi’s restaurant, Tatiana–named for his sister–has been coined New York City’s hottest restaurant, surpassing every gourmand metric. Yes, chef Kwame Onwuachi has had a year. A long year. “Dog years,” he quips, “It’s like seven regular years in the restaurant world.”

From the countertops of McDonald’s to a Deepwater Horizon oil spill cleanup crew to Chef Thomas Keller’s infamous Per Se, Onwuachi has worked every role from dishwasher (which he says is “the most important part of a kitchen”) to head chef. This success has been a long time coming.

I call the chef at 6:30 AM, my time in Tokyo. In a hazy, sleepy delirium, I launch into his world. It’s 4:30 pm in New York and Tatiana opens in 30 minutes. Onwuachi’s world never stops. He checks his phone, anxiously looks at the clock, and chuckles passively at my first question. How does he handle a world of chaos? “Probably my amazing team.” The chef does not mince words, not this close to opening.

After a 73 questions-style riff, we hit the subject of food. On the topic of innovation and creativity, Onwuachi remarks, “Getting people to look at something differently than how they once did probably is the better way to describe how I see it.”

“When was the last time you felt like you had an ‘aha’ moment?”

“Today, actually,” Onwuachi reveals with a smile.

Today’s ‘aha’ was inspired by the stainless-steel icy food carts of The Bronx, Harlem, and Brooklyn. A splash of summer as the city teeters on the brink of winter. Thus, the chef’s latest creation is neatly tucked mango-cherry tuiles, juicy mango sorbet, cherry granita, and pastry cream. Onwuachi reflects, “It just brought back so much nostalgia eating it.”

Onwuachi’s latest menu addition is at the heart of what makes Tatiana so important to the cultural zeitgeist. In a city of restaurants populated with garish neon signs boasting whatever slogans and serving up food created for the stomachs of Instagram grids, Tatiana is a long-awaited and well-deserved love letter to NYC. It’s the best kind of letter, full of hidden nods and winks to the chef’s childhood. 

Onwuachi is somewhat of a sentimental soul, serving up legacy on carefully curated tableware. When asked about his favorite stories and memories, the chef replies with smells and tastes. He meditates on his time in Nigeria, recalling the smell of burning wood. “Whether that’s an icy cart or a Chinese takeout spot or an Italian bakery. I have a lot of food memories—the smell of shrimp being cooked in butter, garlic, and thyme brings me back to my childhood and my mom making and peeling shrimp.”

Menu items such as dumplings filled with peekytoe crab are a nod to a chapter from his book recently picked up by the production company A24: Notes From a Young Black Chef. The book recounts several memories, from egusi soup of the chef’s childhood to Chinese takeout that fueled him through life’s most testing moments.

We converse about the popular notion that every day in the restaurant industry is a test of patience, of do or die. Onwuachi witnessed this first-hand after his first restaurant, the ultra-lux Shaw Bijoux had to shutter its doors before hitting three months. Between that and starting a catering company, which would later lead to his induction to the Culinary Institute of America, Onwuachi sold candy on the subway to make his next steps happen. “Whether they’ve been positive or negative,” he reflects, “they have all been stepping stones to understanding myself.”

Onwuachi sacrifices have paid off. He has won a James Beard award, received widespread critical acclaim, and is now, finally, celebrating the one-year anniversary of Tatiana. Despite all his success, he doesn’t forget about the importance of community. Working with Sheila Johnson (the first African American woman billionaire), the chef has been able tu put a spotlight on Black and Brown excellence in the restaurant industry through his immersive culinary event and fundraiser, The Family Reunion. This past year, the two flew out 50 chefs and leaders in the hospitality world for a sold-out three day celebration.

To the chef, the mission is simple: make people happy. Imbued in Tatiana’s shining dishes is Onwuachi’s mentality: “My outlook on life, and just life in general. Maybe that’s cliché, but it’s such a gift that we get to be alive and even go through ranges of emotions. That just excites me. I’m incredibly grateful to be in good health and have a family, and just to have the opportunity to do something, have the opportunity to fail or succeed.” 

FENDI shirt and pants and MAURICE LACROIX watch.

Photographed by Naoki Fukada

Styled by John Tan

Written by Julia Smith 

Grooming: Valjean Guerra

Location: Tatiana

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Kwame Onwuachi, Flaunt Magazine, Fendi, Maurice Lacroix, Issue 190, The 25th Anniversary Issue, Under The Silver Moon