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Chef Kwame Onwuachi wants everyone to have a seat at his table

todayMay 5, 2023

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Lara Downes speaks with Kwame Onwuachi.
Lara Downes speaks with Kwame Onwuachi.

It’s pretty unusual for a 32-year-old chef to open his own restaurant in Manhattan. For The New York Times to choose it as the best restaurant in the city five months after it opens? Well, that’s kind of crazy.

But then, Chef Kwame Onwuachi’s rise to superstar chefdom has been a little crazy. Drugs and gangs were part of a tough upbringing in the South Bronx. After getting kicked out of college, he moved to Louisiana and cooked for a crew cleaning up the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. He’d found his calling. Back in New York, he enrolled in culinary school and thrived, graduating straight into a job at the Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park.

Kwame’s big break came in 2013, when he competed on Top Chef and won the hearts of the television audience, the media and backers who helped him open his first restaurant, the Shaw Bijou, in Washington, D.C. He was 27. His vision was radical: an elevated, high-end tasting menu of the cuisines that shape his identity and his roots in Nigeria, the bayou and the Bronx. The economic model didn’t work and the restaurant closed after only 11 weeks, but he brought the same inspiration to his next gig, a restaurant he named Kith and Kin. There, his execution of an autobiographical Afro-Caribbean menu was rewarded with the James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year award.

When Lincoln Center invited Kwame to open his own restaurant last year in the newly renovated David Geffen Hall, his expression was given free rein. Tatiana is named after Kwame’s big sister, who looked after him at home in the Bronx while their mother was at work. The restaurant’s cuisine honors family and legacy, with dishes that celebrate his ancestors and resurrect the histories of the Black and brown communities displaced in the 1950s when the construction of Lincoln Center razed the neighborhood known as San Juan Hill. It’s joyful food, infused with memories of home, a generous dash of love, and the soul of a young chef out to change the world, one dish at a time.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Written by: NPR

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