To reach the lower-level champagne cellars at the G.H. Mumm headquarters in Reims, France, you must first walk down a winding staircase that leads approximately 45 feet underground. The further you head into the dimly lit caves, the more of G.H. Mumm’s story is revealed—and the same is true when delving into the life story of their brand ambassador, the James Beard Award-winning chef Kwame Onwuachi.
In May, I tagged along as he traveled to Reims for the first time (with a quick stop in Paris) for an up-close look at Mumm’s cellars, lush vineyards, and Moulin de Vezernay, the brand’s iconic windmill. During the cellar tour, Onwuachi kept getting pulled away for a photo shoot that was happening simultaneously. In between calmly posing in front of huge barrels and dark passageways, he popped in and out of our small group, listening to our guide rattle off notable facts, and roaming around the caves to playfully scare people when he could. As I walked through, I was stunned by the sheer size of the place. The cellars span about 15 miles and showcase tall stacks of aging bottles, precious unopened champagne from the 1800s, and giant old tanks that were used to store wine in the 1940s.
Tattooed, photogenic, and impossibly friendly, Onwuachi seems like the perfect pairing for Mumm—the ideal of-the-moment millennial to help a nearly 200-year-old brand capture the interest of a new generation. “It was gorgeous. I had a lot of fun running around the vineyards and learning about the grapes,” says Onwuachi of the picturesque landscapes outside of Reims. But the jaunt to the Champagne region also meant prying himself away from his new restaurant, Tatiana, at a moment when foodies all over New York City are clamoring to get in. Located inside David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center, Tatiana is named after Onwuachi’s older sister, who he says was “very emotional and incredibly proud” during her first meal there. The eatery, which recently received the 2023 Resy One to Watch award from the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, pays homage to food from Nigeria (Onwuachi’s father’s homeland), Louisiana (where his mother was born), and the Caribbean dishes and corner store treats he ate as a kid in the Bronx.
As the son of a caterer, Onwuachi’s training in the kitchen began long before he was “killing it” at the Culinary Institute of America. “My favorite memories of growing up are cooking with my mom and my sister and learning recipes that have been passed down in our family from generation to generation,” he says. His fresh culinary approach (it’s not every day you see Nigerian-inspired Egusi dumplings or the words “hot pocket” and “bodega special” on an upscale menu) has not only won him scores of praise, but it’s also quietly changing perceptions of fine dining—and who gets to lead its kitchens. In March, Tatiana scored a glowing three-star review from The New York Times. One month later, the publication also named it the best restaurant in NYC. Not bad for a former McDonald’s employee.