Storytelling On The Plate: Kwame Onwuachi’s Afro-Caribbean Journey To Lincoln Center

Food & Drink

Curries and peppers, garlic and ginger, mangos and carrots, and Egusi seeds and pimento are all stars in Kwame Onwuachi’s show, now permanently housed at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

For the Lincoln Center, a venue known for hosting world-class ballets, majestic orchestras and award-winning actors, Chef Kwame’s newest restaurant Tatiana represents New York City’s more colorful corridors— rich with the vibrant mix of flavors from the Caribbean, Africa, Latin America and the Black experience in the United States.

“I want to cook my own food,” Onwuachi said in his 2019 book, Notes From a Young Black Chef. “I’m Nigerian. I’m American. I grew up on Creole and Jamaican food. I’ve been working in fine dining for a long time. I want to cook whatever that is.”

At Tatiana, named after his older sister, Chef Kwame has brought to life those unique mixes of flavors and their accompanying stories.

Through well-thought-out food preparation, infusion of lived experience, and urgency to tell stories through food, Chef Kwame is blazing a new trail in the culinary world and solidifying Afro-Caribbean food’s importance in the American lexicon. With African, Creole, Caribbean, and other Black-centered culinary preparation making their way to fine dining, Onwuachi, and the bold flavors of Tatiana confirm the Food Institute’s recent recognition of Caribbean food as a top culinary trend to watch in 2022.

To truly understand Onwuachi’s culinary lens, one must first understand the Bronx — one of New York’s most diverse boroughs that has a tale marinated in migration. First settled by European migrants in the late 19th century and early 20th century, the borough, during Kwame’s youth, later became rich with African,Caribbean and Latin American migrants. These immigrants brought their language, dialects and culture to the Bronx, creating a literal melting pot full of flavors and spices.

With more than 13 years of experience in the culinary world, Onwuachi describes Tatiana as a blend of those elements that have always been in his life. ” It [Carribean food] has always been popular to me,” he said.

“Afro-Carribean food is delicious at the end of the day,” said Onwuachi, 33. “It’s not as far-fetched, or taboo or exotic as people try to make it out to be. It has very accessible proteins, very flexible flavors done in pretty conventional ways.”

Onwuachi’s pathway to fine dining and culinary stardom can only be described as extraordinary. He took in his first lessons on food preparation at a stepping stool neatly placed in his mother Jewel Robinson’s retro Bronx apartment-based kitchen. That’s where she taught him the importance of flavoring food and cooking from the heart, and the art of the hustle.

As the youngest “employee” of Catering by Jewel, his mother’s catering company, Onwuachi also learned the technicalities of preparing traditional classics such as fried chicken, barbequed shrimp and rice and beans, and West African dishes such as jollof rice, bitter leaf rice, and egusi stew—a meat and seafood Awara pairing with mushrooms and greens.

Onwuachi inherited Robinson’s entrepreneurial spirit, diverse roots, and devotion to satisfying African Americans’ taste buds. “My mom has a magical ability to turn everything into a glamorous adventure,” he said in his recent memoir.

Following in his mother’s footsteps, Onwuachi founded his own catering company, Coterie Catering, in 2010. To raise his seed round of funding, the young entrepreneur and New Yorker pursued the time-old tradition of selling candy bars on the subway.

While the days of selling M&Ms, Snickers, Butterfingers, and Oreos are long gone and have been traded for keys to his restaurant in the exclusive Lincoln Center, Onwuachi’s hustle and drive have remained the same. “I’m still a kid from the Bronx,” he asserted.

The pages of Chef Kwame’s storytelling-inspired menus also include two years living in Ibusa, Nigeria, a village in the Delta State, during his adolescence. For a few months, he served as a cook on the Maine Responder, an oil spill response vessel, following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He also had a 15-month externship at Per Se, a posh French and New American restaurant owned by chef Thomas Keller that has views of Central Park.

Chef Kwame describes his food as a symbiotic relationship between the plate and the preparer. “You must first connect a story to a dish, and when a dish has a story, it has a soul,” said Onwuachi, a 2019 James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year.

“Having some sort of emotional connection to a dish [always lets you put] your all into it, and people can really feel that,” he continued.

“It has been good to see the reception. It has been good to see the representation, and it has been good to see the change in clients at Lincoln Center,” he said. “People like having their food and seeing their culture represented on a plate where they can celebrate a special experience while still celebrating their culture.”

Onwuachi’s diverse roots and experiences wrap around the world. With a half-Nigerian and Jamaican father, a Trinidadian grandfather, and a clear connection to the diversity of the Bronx, the current Murray Hill, Manhattan resident takes pride in uplifting snapshots from history into every plate he prepares at Tatiana and throughout his culinary journey, including his time as executive chef of Kith and Kin–a D.C.-based restaurant influenced by his family ties to Jamaica, Nigeria, Trinidad, and Louisiana.

“When you think about curry goat, oxtails, or even jerk chicken, those are historical snapshots. Nobody trying to impress someone,” said Onwuachi, an alumnus of the Culinary Institute of America. “In the case of curry goat, we had indentured servants from India in Trinidad. They brought curry, and there happened to be goats.”

He continued, “In Jamaica, the runaway enslaved people, the Maroons, were trying to escape the British, and they were trying to hide their location. So they caught wild animals and rubbed them down with thyme and allspice. They dug holes and built fires in those holes to hide their location; that is how jerk chicken came about.”

Delivering those snapshots to plates has made Onwuachi highly sought after. He was named chef of the year 2019 by Esquire, and Kith and Kin was named one of the best new restaurants in America by the same publication. In July 2020, Onwuachi resigned from his position at Kith and Kin, and the restaurant later closed.

Chef Kwame states that he is the happiest when he listens to himself. He said,” living my life for me is the most important. Taking failures in stride, taking the successes in stride and not focusing on either, just being—that is when I’m the happiest.”

As the current executive producer for Food & Wine Magazine and a former contestant on Top Chef season 13, Onwuachi has utilized his platform to tell a unique story about the African Diaspora and its longtime relationship with food, both the bitter and sweet parts.

“I like to understand food, the history behind our food, and how to preserve that,” he said. “Because preserving our food is how we keep our history alive. Continuing to [tell] those stories and passing them down preserves both our food and our history.”

And with one of the most diverse and vibrant kitchen crews in the New York fine-dining season, Chef Kwame is also writing a new chapter for the city of New York, Afro-Caribbean food, up-and-coming chefs and young people interested in seeing their deep roots and neighborhood reflected on a porcelain plate.

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