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—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, like its the former president once saidas “a kind of protected moat of the city”.
For its part, the Lincoln Center wants to recognize its role in erasing San Juan Hill District, which was once rich in music, especially jazz, from 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 reinvent them in a restaurant in an arts complex that, like one The New York publication wrote last year, was “built specifically for performance 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 holder, and began to play. (He has a project cameo 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, drawn to the idea of opening a 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 previous occupant of the dining room, Lincoln Center KitchenTatiana will be secluded from the main hall, not sprawled across her marble floors or tucked away in a nook with curtains.
Onwuachi is a Lincoln Center partner in the restaurant, not a chef under contract for the job. This last condition is important for 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.
An earlier version of this story said Lincoln Center wanted to make amends for its role in erasing New York’s San Juan Hill neighborhood. This story has been updated to reflect a Lincoln Center spokesperson’s statement that the Center “fully recognizes that we can never make amends for this.”