At 33 years old, New York-based Kwame Onwuachi has already accomplished what most chefs aspire to achieve in a lifetime. He competed in Top Chef; worked at the Michelin-starred kitchens of Eleven Madison Park and Per Se; published a memoir, Notes From a Young Black Chef; and opened Tatiana, named the best restaurant in New York by the New York Times (not to mention his forthcoming restaurant in D.C. at the Salamander Resort). Here, Onwuachi riffs on his love for halal carts and icees, shares how Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat inspire his cooking, and reveals the recipe that encapsulates the story of his life.
CULTURED: Your childhood is such an influential part of the way you tell your story. Do you have a first cooking memory?
Onwuachi: My first food memory was making scrambled eggs. Breakfast is like an alarm clock for kids, and I was fascinated by how all these things came together. I remember telling my parents that I wanted to learn how to make them, getting a step stool, going up to the stove and cracking the eggs first, and then whisking them together with the fork. It was just fascinating to me to see these objects turn into food and be a part of that process.
CULTURED: Your mom worked as a chef as well. Did seeing how hard she was working and the many challenges the chef lifestyle engenders make you questions your choice? Did she help form you into the chef you have become?
Onwuachi: It definitely informed me to gravitate toward the craft. I was always in the kitchen with her—I started helping her probably at like 5 years old—but I never wanted to be a chef growing up. That wasn't my dream because we struggled economically, and chefs aren't necessarily the greatest earners, especially back then before it was glamorized. I didn't have the inclination to do it professionally. It was just something I always knew how to do, something that I was really good at and came naturally. But when I got older and had to provide for myself, cooking was the one thing that did not feel like work. It was the one thing that was grounding for me.
CULTURED: Is there a piece of advice you would give young chefs that are starting out in the industry?
Onwuachi: Just remember that journeys are rewarded. You have to focus on your craft first and foremost, everything else will follow after that. Opportunities will always present themselves, but you have to be ready for them. Focusing on your craft and not losing your love for the profession is really, really important. Don’t chase fame and don’t chase perfection because you’ll never attain it, that's something Thomas Keller said.
CULTURED: Tatiana is an ode to many things—to your sister, to Afro-Caribbean culture, to family, and also essentially to New York. What’s your favorite thing to eat in the city right now?
Onwuachi: My favorite thing to eat in New York is probably consistently a halal cart—a combo plate of chicken and lamb over rice with hot sauce and white sauce. There's a halal cart on Houston and Broadway that's really, really good and it’s open 24 hours; I’ve never seen it closed. There's also one by Bryant Park on 44th that serves these little curry chicken rolls wrapped in a really sweet and flaky bread.
CULTURED: Do you have a most underrated New York specialty?
Onwuachi: I would say those Italian icees that are flavored with tropical fruits and are always pushed around by a Dominican or Puerto Rican person are underrated.
CULTURED: Are there any New York chefs who you are supporting right now?
Onwuachi: I'm a fan of Kyle Martindale. He works over at Crown Shy and he's someone that I mentor and who I think is gonna be the future of food. He went to the Culinary Institute of America, did his externship in San Francisco, and he's a recipient of my scholarship. He’s a hard worker with a great head on his shoulders. So if I shout anyone out, it'll be him.
CULTURED: The bodega is obviously an elemental part of living in New York. I know that at Tatiana you reworked several bodega classics, including the chopped cheese, and you put your own spin on the Little Debbie's Cosmic brownie. What is your go-to deli order?
Onwuachi: It depends on the time of the day. In the morning it's bacon, egg, and cheese. Normally I get double bacon on a hero. For midday, it would be a Sausalito turkey sandwich with Munster cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, salt and pepper, oil, and vinegar on a hero. And then for late night it’s chopped cheese.
CULTURED: Is there a kitchen etiquette rule that you live by?
Onwuachi: A dish should tell a story, and if it tells a story, it has a soul. You're not just cooking for perfect seasoning. You're going to share some nostalgia, or a memory, or an experience with someone. That way it normally resonates with them a little bit more.
CULTURED: Is there a dish that represents where you are right now in your life?
Onwuachi: There's a dish that I created the other day to pair with G.H. Mumm's rosé. I'll call it the Truffle Struggle Sandwich. I ate a lot of tuna fish sandwiches growing up because we came from very humble beginnings, and I wanted to celebrate where I'm at now. So I made a spicy tuna sandwich with a truffle hot sauce, a little bit of CYK Caviar, and sweet relish. Then I put that on a multi-grain bread slice with shredded lettuce, tomatoes, salt, pepper, a little bit of lime juice, and then made a caviar mayo as well. I added some avocado and a little bit of Swiss cheese. That was an ode to my childhood.