With dishes like soup dumplings filled with a Nigerian stew, Kwame Onwuachi’s top-rated New York establishment is a model for how a chef’s equity can be key to cuisine that’s diverse — and profitable.
By Chloe Sorvino, Forbes Staff
IT’s the afternoon after the Met Gala, and as chef Kwame Onwuachi rolls into his buzzy Lincoln Center restaurant Tatiana, he immediately has an issue: where’s the music? Wanting to keep the party going, Onwuachi, in a Nahmias “Miracle Academy” hat, a patterned Roberto Cavalli button-down and limited edition black Jordan 1 sneakers, fiddles with the sound system, puts on “#1 Stunna” by Big Tymers featuring Lil Wayne & Juvenile, and starts laughing. “You’ve got to get the vibes right,” he says.
Rap is booming. A barely audible Onwuachi says he’ll take Forbes downstairs, into the basement prep kitchen, where a dozen workers are preparing dishes to be served later that night. Tatiana, one of the hottest and most acclaimed restaurants in America, has a lot of hype to live up to. On one end of a stainless steel table, a cook fills dumplings with a surprise — egusi stew, the traditional Nigerian dish — as others look after large vats of oxtail and lamb simmering on low. Smells of mango and pickled onion mix with creole mustard and ginger.
At one station, Caribbean-style patties made with a turmeric-laced dough are filled with curried goat, butchered from the whole animal. Onwuachi pauses to point out that these patties are a consistent hit. Staff makes about 750 of them each week. They’re also Tatiana’s most profitable dish.
Last month, the New York Times named Tatiana the No. 1 restaurant in New York City. When Onwuachi saw the list, he says he immediately scrolled to the bottom and didn’t see his listing until he scrolled all the way back up.
But he shouldn’t have been surprised. At 33, Onwuachi helms one of the most creative fine-dining menus in the country. With Afro-Caribbean flavors seamlessly weaving into the chef’s personal memories from growing up in the Bronx, Tatiana is a big win for expanding cultural awareness. The project is the country’s most high-profile investment in building a more diverse restaurant landscape, but it also exposes how far the industry has to come to bring more inclusive ideas to fine dining. Data from the National Restaurant Association shows there’s already diversity among owners — four in ten restaurant firms are owned by people of color — and there’s demand for more. Across the U.S., 19% of restaurants are Asian-owned, 14% are Hispanic-owned, and 9% are Black-owned. But the business is tough. Another survey found that 85% of restaurant operators say their restaurant is less profitable than it was before the pandemic.
Onwuachi says he’s able to take artistic risks and run what he calls an “unapologetically Black” restaurant only because he owns a piece of the place. Tatiana is the first restaurant Onwuachi has run in which he has significant equity — a milestone for the James Beard-winning chef in an industry which has limited the stakes available to chefs, even though the kitchen bosses are often the public faces of their restaurants and responsible for the operations’ success. Chefs can own as little as 1% or 2% of the overall restaurant business, if they have any stake at all. Sitting down at the gold-accented bar, Onwuachi won’t share what exact percentage of Tatiana he owns, only that it’s a minority stake, and that the equity has given him the freedom he needs to succeed.
“The thing that I love most is that we’re able to be authentically ourselves and it’s all happening,” he says. Lil Wayne, rapping on the sound system, is also the music Tatiana plays in the evening, Onwuachi says, pointing out that the restaurant sits next to the Philharmonic, the opera and the ballet.
Finishing his tour of the prep kitchen, Onwuachi points to the cod filets at the cold station that will be doused with jerk seasoning and smoked for a cornbread dish, and then passes by bright red strawberries cut for a shortcake dessert. “Everything that I’ve gone through in my career has led me to this moment, now,” he says.
Padma Lakshmi, the host of Hulu’s Taste The Nation, now streaming its second season, calls the menu “interesting, eclectic and as diverse as our city.”
“Looking around the room when I dined there, I saw such a different crowd than I usually see in the city’s finest restaurants,” Lakshmi tells Forbes. “That’s exciting. Not only because it feels more inclusive and fresh but because it benefits the industry as a whole. It’s clear that a new guard is on the horizon and Kwame is a leader of that pack. It’s a delicious win-win for all.”
It still takes a lot of dough to make it as a new fine-dining restaurant, especially in Manhattan. Opening a big restaurant, especially in midtown or uptown, can easily run between $5 million to $20 million. But Tatiana has a sweetheart deal with Lincoln Center. It opened as part of the huge $600 million renovation of the compound’s David Geffen Hall, and the restaurant gets a break on the rent, Onwuachi says. Representatives for Tatiana and Lincoln Center declined to comment on the restaurant’s financials and ownership structure.
Numbers may not be the reason chefs get into the restaurant business, but it can be what pushes them out. That’s a motto at Boston-based restaurant finance consultancy Prepshift, cofounded and run by Irene Li, who also opened the restaurant Mei Mei in 2013. “Many of the great chefs historically have been for royalty,” she says. “They had patrons. They weren’t running businesses. There’s still some of that going on in the highly funded models. The best-funded restaurants will always reflect the tastes of the 1%.”
Tatiana’s fanbase rallies. Reservations typically sell out weeks ahead, and diehard loyalists will book within minutes of opening at noon 28 days in advance. The restaurant keeps a long waitlist for prime seatings and, on the weekends, a line of walk-ins often wraps around the restaurant on Lincoln Center’s main square. All that has helped 66-seat Tatiana become profitable.
A gold standard for a fine-dining restaurant would be to hit a net profit margin of 8% to 10%, but Forbes estimates Tatiana is likely running at less than half that. What has helped the bottom line is keeping food costs in check — industry standard is 20% to 30% of total expenses — and that’s a feat amid continued inflation. Tatiana’s menu prices aren’t cheap, either. Entrees start at $45 and run to $82. A reasonable meal for two with a bottle of wine and a healthy tip can easily hit $300.
“There’ll be a table with someone with a durag and a table with someone with a tuxedo, a table with someone with a fur coat and someone with Jordans,” Onwuachi tells Forbes. “They can all coexist. A restaurant like this can work in any place.”
Onwuachi grew up in the Bronx. His mother worked as a caterer, and some of Onwuachi’s earliest memories cooking are with her. His older sister Tatiana, the namesake for the restaurant, was like a second mother.
As a kid, Onwuachi often hung out around some of the toughest projects in America, where friends lived. After getting in trouble at school, his mother sent him to live in Nigeria with his grandfather starting at the age of 10. Then, back in New York City, he joined a gang, sold drugs and was kicked out of college. But he switched paths. He moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana and cooked on ships for crews cleaning the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. In 2010 he returned to New York City. He sold candy on the subway to finance a catering company. Then, two years later, he enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America and later took jobs cooking at renowned restaurants Per Se and Eleven Madison Park.
Washington had cheaper rent, and with the help of two investors, Onwuachi at 26 opened a 28-seat spot called Shaw Bijou. It was super ambitious, debuting with an $185 tasting menu (before drink pairings, tax and tip) that put it among D.C.’s most expensive. The indulgent menu featured dishes like king crab in garlic butter with shaved uni and a wagyu “steak and eggs” with the yolk of a pickled quail egg surrounded by a creamy onion sauce.
It blew up in less than three months. The two principal investors gave up. Onwuachi brushed it off and, six months later, he was back, opening a tribute to his family history at the Intercontinental Hotel on the Southwest Washington waterfront called Kith/Kin. It was also highly acclaimed. “Really, truly believing in myself was the main thing that I learned,” Onwuachi says. “Success and failures, they’re not non-exclusive.”
As a full-fledged rising star, with a James Beard Award in addition to a spot on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list, Onwuachi published a memoir, Notes From A Young Black Chef. It rocked the restaurant industry and received critical approval, as Onwuachi detailed the racism he experienced at some of the most famous restaurant kitchens in the world. The book was optioned to be turned into a movie, with Onwuachi himself scoring a cameo.
When the pandemic forced shutdowns across the restaurant industry, Onwuachi didn’t have much decision-making power. Kith/Kin shuttered and his staff was furloughed. Just a month after the dining room reopened, in July 2020, Onwuachi resigned as executive chef and decided that he wouldn’t open another restaurant without equity.
“A lot of times when young chefs are coming up, they’re just a hired gun essentially,” he says. “You can do your little menu, but this is what the concept is. All the brunt happens to that chef, not investors or anything.”
The chance at equity came in 2021, when Onwuachi heard that Lincoln Center was asking for proposals for a new restaurant. By that point, he was already an industry superstar — from Top Chef fan favorite to judge for season 18 — when he pitched the arts institution on his New York City homecoming. From the beginning, the concept focused on the opportunity to bring a personal narrative to a menu that would feed tourists and opera and ballet goers alongside Upper West Side regulars. He specifically pointed out that, before Lincoln Center was built in the 1950s and 60s, the neighborhood was called San Juan Hill and was known for its thriving Afro-Caribbean community.
Tatiana opened in November 2022, and elements of Onwuachi’s life are everywhere, from the chain-link blinds that accompany the floor-to-ceiling windows — a nod to Onwuachi’s younger days of climbing over fences in the Bronx — to the dining room’s main light fixtures, which resemble fluffy clouds, tinted purple. “My head is always in the clouds,” he says. “I’m a dreamer.”
There’s still room for improvement. Tatiana just went through its first menu refresh, and, notably, one of the restaurant’s most anticipated dishes is no longer part of the menu: Onwuachi’s truffle-accented take on the classic Bronx bodega sandwich, the chopped cheese. (A rep for Tatiana says that “truffles are not great right now, and they didn’t want that to impact the final product. It will likely return this fall.”)
Because his name is on the marquee, Onwuachi says he should be able to make decisions supported by other investors. “I’m the creator,” he says. “Let me do my thing.”
So far, the energy has paid off. Chef Marcus Samuelsson, who has opened more than a dozen restaurants in his career, is a fan, and took his wife to Tatiana on her birthday.
“The restaurant is vibrant and really captures his warm personality and love for New York,” Samuelsson told Forbes.
The best chance to sustain that vision is for the restaurant to make more money. That’s why this week Tatiana opened an outdoor patio, adding 50% to the restaurant’s seating, as well as a drinks-only lounge. It’s a start, as Onwuachi tries to capitalize on overwhelming demand. In the meantime, he’s regularly fending off offers to open more restaurants. A lot is on the horizon, but Onwuachi says there’s nothing specific yet.
“The deal’s got to be right,” he says. “It’s got to feel like it means something.”