Kwame Onwuachi’s Lincoln Center restaurant aims to ‘reflect all of New York’

NEW YORK – As Kwame Onwuachi guides me through what will be Tatiana’s dining room, her next restaurant in David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, he points to the columns, which shimmer like light reflecting off the surface of a soap bubble. The effect is deliberate: the columns are designed to recall the iridescent pools Onwuachi remembers from childhood, the ones that formed whenever gushing water from an open fire hydrant interacted with streets covered in oil from his neighborhood in the Bronx.

The columns are a minor detail, but they give a clue as to what Onwuachi and Lincoln Center expect from this new restaurant in the renovated concert hall, which reopens Oct. 8. The chef wants to inject some his New York City—the West African aromas, the chopped cheese sandwiches, the brutal summers when the only relief was an open fire hydrant—at this Upper West Side cultural institution, which was built, as a said its former president one day, like “a kind of moat, sheltered from the city.

For its part, Lincoln Center wants to make amends for its role in erasing the San Juan Hill neighborhood, once rich in the music, especially jazz, of pioneers such as James P. Johnson and Thelonious Monk. The arts complex is tearing down the walls that isolated it from much of Gotham. Leah Johnson, executive vice president and head of communications, marketing and advocacy, says Lincoln Center has launched initiatives to diversify its programming, audience, staff and contractors.

Onwuachi’s Tatiana fits those goals perfectly.

The restaurant draws on the same Afro-Caribbean flavors that have defined Onwuachi’s restaurants in Washington – the short-lived Shaw Bijou as well as Kith and Kin on the Wharf, which won him a James Beard award – but this time, the chef’s kitchen background is located just a subway ride away. They can be found in Jamaican bakeries along White Plains Road in the North Bronx; among vendors in the New World Mall food court in Flushing, Queens; inside Senegalese restaurants in Harlem; and next to the Dominican food carts that fill the sidewalks of the West Bronx.

Onwuachi absorbed these influences and more as a child, and at age 32 he will reimagine them in a restaurant in an arts complex that, as a New York publication wrote last year, was “specifically built for performing companies that were bastions of white culture”. .”

“Kwame is a quintessential New Yorker,” says Lincoln Center director Johnson. “So when Kwame started telling us about his philosophy, his cooking, how he envisioned coming to New York and opening a restaurant that would truly reflect all of New York because that’s who Kwame is. .. he was just the right person for us.

Tatiana, slated to open in early November, is a homecoming for Onwuachi. He resigned from Kith and Kin in July 2020, months after having to lay off his staff of 70 at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. In February 2021, Onwuachi moved to Los Angeles, where, among other projects, he co-founded a production company, Broken Whip Media, and began acting. (He has a cameo planned in the film version of his 2019 memoir, “Notes of a Young Black Leader,” which is slated to begin filming next year.) But Onwuachi returned to New York in April, lured by the idea of ​​opening another restaurant, this one named after his half-sister, Tatiana Steed, who is a private chef in New Orleans.

“I wanted it to be a restaurant that reflected my childhood, and a big part of that was spending time with my sister. She took care of me a lot,” Onwuachi says of Steed, who is five years older than him. “There would be times when she would stand up for me if I ever got bullied.”

Tatiana, the restaurant, will be the only full-service dining option at Geffen Hall, Johnson said. Unlike the dining hall’s former occupant, Lincoln Center Kitchen, Tatiana will be secluded from the main lobby, not sprawled across its marble floors or tucked away in a curtained nook.

Onwuachi is a Lincoln Center partner in the restaurant, not a chef under contract for the job. This last condition is important to Onwuachi, who told the New York Times two years ago, “Anything that profits from black and brown dollars should be black-owned. The chef also owns all intellectual property of the Tatiana brand.

Lincoln Center has been indifferent to Tatiana, Johnson says. Onwuachi makes the decisions. He hired Kamat Newman, who last worked at Wax Myrtle’s in Austin, as head chef. He also hired Bradley Knebel, who has held various positions with the Union Square Hospitality Group, as Tatiana’s general manager. Onwuachi “directed every aspect, from design elements to concept to interviews,” says Johnson. “If you want to be a dishwasher for Tatiana, you’ve met Kwame.”

The challenge for Tatiana, says Knebel, will be to create a destination restaurant in a room that is already a destination. Johnson has even higher expectations. She hopes that in a city full of great restaurants, Tatiana will become a magnet for diners, whether or not a band is performing at Geffen Hall.

Whatever the answer, it will undoubtedly be an improvement over Onwuachi’s childhood trip to Lincoln Center. The chef recalls his mother, Jewel Robinson, taking him to a show at the venue when he was a child. He doesn’t remember the production. All he remembers is making origami figures and throwing them off the balcony. Mom was embarrassed.

“She said she would never take me out again. So she never took me back again, and I was very happy about that,” Onwuachi says. “I would appreciate it now. I prefer watching Power Rangers.

Richard Dement

The author Richard Dement