NEW YORK — As Kwame Onwuachi walks me through what will be the dining room at Tatiana, his forthcoming restaurant in David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, he points out the columns, which shimmer like light reflected off the surface of a soap bubble. The effect is purposeful: The columns are designed to recall the iridescent pools that Onwuachi remembers from childhood, the ones formed whenever the gushing water from an open fire hydrant interacted with the oil-slicked streets of his neighborhood in the Bronx.
The columns are a minor detail, but they provide a clue as to what both Onwuachi and Lincoln Center want from this new restaurant in the renovated concert hall, which reopens Oct. 8. The chef wants to inject a little of his New York — the West African aromas, the chopped-cheese sandwiches, the brutal summers when the only relief was an open hydrant — into this cultural institution on the Upper West Side, which was built, as its former president once said, as “a kind of moat, protected from the city.”
For its part, Lincoln Center wants to acknowledge its role in erasing the San Juan Hill neighborhood, which was once rich with music, particularly jazz, from pioneers such as James P. Johnson and Thelonious Monk. The arts complex is tearing down those walls that isolated it from much of Gotham. Leah Johnson, executive vice president and chief communications, marketing and advocacy officer, says Lincoln Center has launched some initiatives to diversify its programming, its audience and its staff and contractors.
Onwuachi’s Tatiana fits right in with those goals.
The restaurant leans on the same Afro-Caribbean flavors that defined Onwuachi’s Washington restaurants — the short-lived Shaw Bijou as well as Kith and Kin on the Wharf, which earned him a James Beard Award — but this time, the antecedents to the chef’s cooking are located just a subway ride away. They can be found in the Jamaican bakeries along White Plains Road in the North Bronx; among the food court vendors at the New World Mall in Flushing, Queens; inside the Senegalese restaurants of Harlem; and next to the Dominican food carts that occupy the sidewalks in the West Bronx.
Onwuachi absorbed these influences and more as a child, and at age 32, he will reimagine them in a restaurant at an arts complex that, as one 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 Johnson, the Lincoln Center executive. “So when Kwame started talking to us about his philosophy, about his cuisine, about how he thought about coming to New York and opening up a restaurant that would reflect, really, all of New York because that’s who Kwame is … he was just the right person for us.”
Tatiana, set to open in early November, is a homecoming for Onwuachi. He resigned from Kith and Kin in July 2020, a few months after he had 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 started acting. (He has a planned cameo in the cinematic version of his 2019 memoir, “Notes From a Young Black Chef,” which is set to start filming next year.) But Onwuachi returned to New York in April, lured back home by the idea of opening another restaurant, this one named for his half sister, Tatiana Steed, who’s 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 about Steed, who is five years older than him. “There’d be times when she would stick up for me if I ever got bullied.”
Tatiana, the restaurant, will be the only full-service, sit-down dining option at Geffen Hall, Johnson says. Unlike the previous dining occupant, Lincoln Center Kitchen, Tatiana will be walled-off from the main hall, not spread out among its marble floors or tucked into a curtained nook.
Onwuachi is a partner with Lincoln Center in the restaurant, not a chef contracted for the job. The latter condition is important to Onwuachi, who told the New York Times two years ago, “Something that profits off of Black and Brown dollars should be Black-owned.” The chef also owns all the intellectual property to the Tatiana brand.
Lincoln Center has been hands-off with Tatiana, Johnson says. Onwuachi makes the decisions. He has hired Kamat Newman, who last worked at Wax Myrtle’s in Austin, as his chef de cuisine. He has also hired Bradley Knebel, who has held various positions with the Union Square Hospitality Group, as Tatiana’s general manager. Onwuachi “has been leading every aspect, from design elements to concept and also to interviewing,” Johnson says. “If you want to be a dishwasher for Tatiana, you’ve met Kwame.”
The challenge for Tatiana, Knebel says, will be to create a destination restaurant at a hall that’s 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, regardless of whether a group is performing in Geffen Hall.
Whatever the response, it will no doubt be an improvement over Onwuachi’s childhood trip to Lincoln Center. The chef recalls that his mother, Jewel Robinson, took him to a performance at the hall when he was a kid. He doesn’t remember the production. All he remembers is making origami figures and flicking them off the balcony. Mom was embarrassed.
“She said she would never take me out again. So she never took me again, and I was very happy about that,” Onwuachi says. “I would appreciate it now. As a kid, I couldn’t sit still. I’d rather watch Power Rangers.”
A previous version of this story said that 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 will never be able to make amends for that.”