Kwame Onwuachi’s new restaurant pays tribute to New York and survival

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(Chris Sorensen for The Washington Post)
(Chris Sorensen for The Washington Post)

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NEW YORK — As we sat in the subterranean food court of the New World Mall in Flushing, Kwame Onwuachi dug into a foam container of fish dumplings from a Chinese-Korean vendor. He had been searching for the delicacies for more than an hour in the Queens neighborhood that he used to roam as a teenager. I noticed the chef had no trouble handling the fat, slippery dumplings with his chopsticks, while my doughy mandu kept escaping the grasp of mine.

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I paused for a closer look at Onwuachi’s technique. “Did you spear it? Is that how you get the mandu?” I asked him, couching my accusation that he was violating chopstick etiquette in a thick layer of Midwestern nice.

“I’m spearing it every time. I want to eat it,” he responded, not a concern in his voice.

A minute passed, and another dumpling slipped from my chopsticks. Onwuachi stopped himself in the middle of a thought and stared at my fumbling attempts to feed myself. “You got to spear it, man,” he instructed me. “We’re in America, baby.”

I let his words sink in for a beat, then started laughing uncontrollably. Onwuachi joined me, and, for a moment, it felt like we were a couple of kids skipping school and breaking the rules on a Wednesday afternoon in the outer borough. We were going to spear our dumplings. No remorse, only reward.

It was only later that I thought the moment helps explain Onwuachi’s relationship with the Bronx, Queens and Harlem neighborhoods of his youth, the ones that still influence his cooking more than a decade later. The man loves the food he found on these streets — the Chinese-Korean dumplings, West African stews, Dominican pastelitos, even an oddball fusion of Jamaican patty with pepperoni pizza — and he never hesitated about introducing some of these dishes to diners at Tatiana, his new restaurant inside Lincoln Center, that bastion of high culture.

At least his interpretations of these dishes. In Onwuachi’s worldview, everything is open to reinvention. And why not? We’re in America, baby.

Onwuachi turned 33 in November, which means he still qualifies as young, or youngish. He has packed a lot into a life that hasn’t even reached middle age, which may explain why he has spent a fair amount of his career unpacking it in public via his writing and his restaurants, starting in 2016 with the short-lived Shaw Bijou in Washington, D.C.

With every project, it seems, Onwuachi reveals a little more about himself. In the run-up to Shaw Bijou, he gave us the broad outline of his life in the Bronx and beyond, and with his searing 2019 memoir, “Notes From a Young Black Chef,” he filled in much of the rest. His stories were often packed with brutal truths: the beatings his father administered when Onwuachi was anything short of perfect; his sometimes violent descent into gang life as a teen; and his plunge into dealing weed and ecstasy, post high school, and the toll it took on his health and ambition.

But no matter what ugly turns life took, Onwuachi always had safe harbors: his mother, Jewel Robinson, now a retired chef and caterer; his older half sister, Tatiana Steed, a chef and caterer who calls herself Onwuachi’s “second mom”; and perhaps most important of all, food and cooking, which didn’t just nourish him but anchored Onwuachi whenever he felt unmoored.

Onwuachi grew up on Creole, Jamaican and West African dishes, sometimes cooked in his mother’s kitchen and sometimes prepared at his grandfather’s compound in Igbuzo, Nigeria, where a young wayward Onwuachi spent two years to “learn respect,” as Robinson described it in the chef’s memoir. But Onwuachi also explored the neighborhoods of New York, becoming acquainted with the wide world of flavor hiding in plain sight in the boroughs. He ate his way through the Jamaican bakeries in the North Bronx, the Dominican street vendors in the West Bronx and the Asian food courts of Flushing.

His childhood culinary adventures — many of them unknown even to his mom — are the latest chapters that Onwuachi has released for public consumption. But these are composed in dish form at Tatiana, the restaurant named after the woman he calls his sister, no half about it. Like the other stories Onwuachi has told, these are filled with affection and generosity toward others, personal bravado and humor, and a pain that is almost impossible to reconcile.

The three students didn’t realize it when they started classes in 2003 at Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx, but they would become friends for life. Jaquan Millien lived in the Webster Houses, which Onwuachi called “one of the toughest housing projects in the Bronx” in his memoir. Millien’s father died when the boy was three, but Millien, Onwuachi noted, had not hardened himself to the world. Just the opposite: With a baby face and thick glasses, Millien was often referred to by his nickname, Urkel, as in Steve Urkel, the nerdy character on “Family Matters.”

The third member of this tightknit group was Marquis Hueston, whose mother was a corrections officer at Sing Sing, Onwuachi wrote in his memoir. “He didn’t bother with macho posturing or intimidation,” Onwuachi added. “We immediately got along.”

Onwuachi was the de facto leader of this trio, at least in culinary decisions. Most days after school, the boys would hop on a train and head to Burnside Avenue in the West Bronx or Harlem (where Onwuachi had lived for a period) or even Queens. They did what many boys do as teenagers: They played basketball, flirted with girls, basically hung out until their clocks, internal or otherwise, told them they needed to get home ASAP. But they also surveyed their neighborhoods, often at Onwuachi’s urging, seeking out foods that Hueston says he might have never sampled otherwise.

Dominican pastelitos stuffed with beef and slathered with mayo-ketchup and hot sauce. West African egusi stew and strips of grilled beef dusted with suya spice. Chopped cheese sandwiches served on toasted kaiser rolls at the corner bodega. The trio found the world laid out before them, packed into the countless storefronts and food carts that crowded the streets of New York, just a short walk, or a long train trip, from their front doors.

Onwuachi would “be like, ‘Let’s try it,’ ” remembered Hueston, whose typical childhood diet leaned on Southern fare. “I’d be like, ‘All right. What’s the worst that can happen?’ ”

Even at an early age, Hueston recalled, Onwuachi was curating experiences for his friends, even if the future chef often was just experimenting himself. Hueston says he and Millien trusted their friend’s instincts with food. Onwuachi wasn’t always as trusting when others suggested dishes. Exhibit A: It took years for Onwuachi, a Jamaican traditionalist even as a teenager, to try a Jamaican beef patty split open and accessorized with pepperoni and mozzarella.

“But people on the block and people in the area, they would eat it, to the point one day where I wanted to try it,” Onwuachi said. “I tried it, and it was really good!”

As Onwuachi was sketching out his plans for Tatiana, the restaurant, he wrote down a list of 40-some dishes from his youth. Jamaican dishes. Halal street food. Dominican snacks. Chinese noodles. Nigerian stews. American sandwiches. Anything that he could recall and, possibly, turn into an appetizer or entree.

Over two warm afternoons in September, Onwuachi took me on a tour of the neighborhoods where, years earlier, he, Millien and Hueston had received their educations in international cuisines. Or where Onwuachi had scouted storefronts and food courts on his own, always on the prowl for something to satisfy his palate at a price that a broke teenager could afford.

We started with chicken and lamb over rice from a halal cart next to the Lincoln Center (a revered street dish that Onwuachi once turned into a rice chip with lamb sweetbreads glazed in chicken jus at Shaw Bijou) before we took a train to Burnside Avenue. As we descended the stairs from the train, we were met with the street music of the West Bronx, a cacophony of police sirens, truck engines and human voices reverberating off the metal skeleton of the elevated train.

In and around Burnside, we dug into a combination of mango- and cherry-flavored shaved ices from a Dominican cart. We feasted on a chopped cheese sandwich, pastelitos, egusi stew with fufu, beef suya, chicharrón, pollo guisado over rice and that weird little Jamaican beef patty jury-rigged with pepperoni and mozz, which is as delicious as Onwuachi claims. We ate so much that, on multiple occasions, Onwuachi said he couldn’t take another bite. He had a dinner planned that evening at Laser Wolf in Williamsburg.

“I got to keep my girlish figure!” he joked. Or at least partially joked. Anyone who has spent time around Onwuachi knows he’s a clothes horse. For our first day on the streets, he wore a printed shirt from Zara, black Dolce & Gabbana pants, Alexander McQueen sneakers, a long white Comme Des Garçons coat and a Negro Leagues ball cap (the lettering on the back read: “Brothers that played and never got paid”).

As we stood on the platform, waiting for the train to Harlem, where we would hunt for Senegalese food, the subject of Millien came up. I asked Onwuachi how his friend is.

“He was murdered,” he said.

Millien was killed in 2018 near the Webster Houses, with a man described as a rival drug dealer facing charges. (I should note that Onwuachi mentioned the death in the acknowledgments of his memoir, which I had forgotten, yet another example of my post-covid memory lapses.) The assailant also shot Millien’s son, 5, who survived the horror. I stood there for a second, dumbfounded, before recovering enough to tell Onwuachi how sorry I was.

“Me, too,” he said, his voice almost inaudible. “Me, too.”

Millien “was always like my North Star,” Onwuachi told me weeks later, over the phone. Whenever the chef felt doubt about his next project, he would call Millien for moral support and perspective. Millien would often remind Onwuachi how far he had already come. In Millien’s mind, his friend was already winning.

“I don’t have that anymore,” Onwuachi added.

The following day, on a cab ride to the North Bronx, where we were going to feast on Jamaican patties, oxtails and more, I asked Onwuachi about the many projects he’s involved in. The list is long, and it starts with a parent company, Fifth Floor Hospitality, that Onwuachi named for Bruh Man in “Martin,” the classic sitcom featuring Martin Lawrence. Bruh Man, from the fifth floor, was always making surprise visits to Martin’s apartment, helping himself to a sandwich.

Fifth Floor has many arms, each designed to handle a part of Onwuachi’s career: his speaking engagements, his TV and film projects and appearances (like the cinematic version of his memoir, set to start filming next year), his books (like his new cookbook, “My America: Recipes From a Young Black Chef”), his product lines (like his upcoming sparkling waters, Miri, named for the Igbo word for “water”), his consulting business (like his work with an air protein company, part of Onwuachi’s efforts to reduce our carbon footprint). He has even been doing a little stand-up comedy, all improvised.

Onwuachi has so much on his plate, I wondered why he would want to run a restaurant again, particularly in this period of labor shortages, high prices and continuing late-pandemic angst.

“I can’t not do this. I can’t not hug people. I can’t not talk to people,” Onwuachi said. “I like to create vibes. I like to create places for people to go to escape, but also to celebrate and have a good f—ing time.”

Last Christmas, when Onwuachi was still living in Los Angeles before his return to New York this year, he invited his family to the West Coast to celebrate the holiday. After everyone had opened gifts, Onwuachi asked his sister, five years his elder, to join him in the living room. He turned on a video. It was a presentation about the chef’s forthcoming restaurant. Then he handed Steed a folder that read: “Tatiana by Kwame Onwuachi, coming soon.”

“I was like, ‘What is this?’ ” Steed recalled. “He’s like, ‘I’m opening a restaurant in your name.’ I ugly-cried.”

Less than a year later, on a warm evening in early November, Steed had traveled from her home in New Orleans and was sitting at a long table inside the restaurant named after her. Her mother was there, too. So was Onwuachi’s childhood friend, Hueston, now an electrician in Stamford, Conn. They were sampling deep into Onwuachi’s menu, digging into curried goat patties, braised oxtails, short rib pastrami suya, and this curious appetizer dubbed egusi dumplings. They’re basically soup dumplings stuffed with black bass and egusi stew, a tribute to not just Onwuachi’s West African roots but also those Chinese-Korean dumplings he first sampled as a teenager in Flushing.

Steed tried the egusi dumplings even though she doesn’t exactly share her brother’s affection for West African stews and fufu. But she was, once again, playing the role of good sister. Just like the one who, years ago, babysat and watched over Onwuachi. The one who made sure that “New York City didn’t get ahold of my brother,” as she told me. The one who taught Onwuachi how to stick up for himself against bullies.

She loved the dumplings. She offered the opinion without hesitation. She had a harder time grappling with this elegant restaurant named in her honor, a thank you from her little brother for all that she had done. “I’m just like in complete shock and awe,” she said.

“I don’t ever think about, like, oh, what I did for you as a child,” Steed said. “It was just, I’m your big sister. This is what I was supposed to do. I was supposed to get you here.”

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