For Chef Kwame Onwuachi, Every Dish Tells a Story

Written by Lynn Hirschberg
Photographs by Stefan Ruiz
Styled by Marion B. Kelly II

Kwame Onwuachi wears an Hermès leather shirt; Winnie New York shirt; his own pants, glasses, and sne...
Kwame Onwuachi wears an Hermès leather shirt; Winnie New York shirt; his own pants, glasses, and sneakers.

For W’s annual The Originals portfolio, we asked creatives—pioneers in the fields of art, music, food, dance, fashion, and more—to share their insights on staying true to themselves. See this year’s full class of creatives here.

In your memoir, Notes From a Young Black Chef, you vividly detail your experience growing up poor in the Bronx and becoming one of the most renowned chefs in America. Along the way, you were a drug dealer, sold candy bars on the subway to finance a catering business, trained at the Culinary Institute of America, and came in sixth place on Top Chef. Recently, your restaurant Tatiana, which specializes in the flavors of West Africa, was named the No. 1 restaurant in New York by The New York Times. Your career has been a fascinating mix of street hustling and high-end achievements. Did you ever feel you had to code-switch to adapt to all these different environments?

No, I never changed my demeanor; I was myself wherever I was. It was difficult to be in those environments sometimes, but I was always firm in the stories I wanted to tell. What fuels me is myself: I believe true greatness comes with intentionality. Tatiana is the sixth restaurant that I’ve created. I named it after my sister, and that always reminds me of my upbringing in New York: I’m a kid of the Bronx! People feel the energy of the streets when they eat at Tatiana.

How long does it take for you to create a dish that makes it onto the ­Tatiana menu?

Every dish tells a story. If a dish can tell a story, it has a soul, and then it tastes more alive. For instance, everyone talks about our okra, which started out as a garnish on another dish. There was no sauce, just salt and lemon juice. But it was a story too complex and special for a garnish! We added a sauce and gave it pizzazz. Now the okra is a star. Most of the recipes at Tatiana took a year of tweaking. I cooked a lot of the dishes for friends at my house. But then I had to figure out how to make the same dish 50 times a night. That’s when the editing becomes crucial.

Your mother is also a great cook and ran a catering business for most of your childhood.

As a kid, I worked for her, which probably broke a few labor laws. But I learned a lot. It taught me to be determined.

What was your favorite of her dishes?

Fisherman’s pie! She’d make that for my birthday. Lobster, shrimp, crab, under a béchamel sauce. My mouth is watering just talking about it.

Did your mom watch you on Top Chef?

Yes! She’s not fun to watch the show with because she would get so intense and would not want anyone else to speak. I haven’t watched Top Chef for a while—I don’t even watch the shows where I’m judging. But when I was growing up, I was obsessed with food competitions on TV. That shifted to learning the actual craft of cooking. I got my butt kicked working in high-end kitchens like Per Se.

Even as a lowly worker, you had the audacity to suggest a dish at Per Se: steak and eggs, which was Wagyu steak and pickled quail eggs.

That was a small victory: They listened to me and put it on the menu. It was the most popular dish of the day. My early career was small victories all the way.

Who is original to you?

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Malcolm X, and Steve Jobs. These are innovators, change agents with a story to tell and a strong belief in what’s possible.

When you’re cooking dinner for yourself at home, what do you make?

Something very simple: a piece of steak. No plating. I barely use silverware when I’m home. I mean, who am I making a sauce for? It’s just me.

Grooming by Valjean Guerra; photo assistant: Lauren Nielsen.