Traveling the world both as a child and a chef has peppered Edward Blyden’s life with cultural and culinary influences that have helped shape his worldview and perspective on cuisine. The San Francisco-based restaurateur particularly enjoys telling stories about his experiences and his travels have informed his palate and understanding of people.
Early memories include time spent in his aunt’s kitchen in Sierra Leone learning West African recipes for jams, wines and confectionaries made of exotic tropical fruits such as star fruit, carambola, guava, papaya, tamarind and sunarian cherries. Other food memories include making his first pizza at age 14 and eating beets and borscht while in Russia. Learning to read the body language of the vendors in food markets in Thailand and wowing customers with unique takes food from their native countries.
During the holidays, the Nigerian-born Blyden is generally on the receiving end of sublime meals. His mother and sisters commandeer the kitchen and prepare traditional dishes from Sierra Leone, a Western African nation of six million people where the family was reared. Rather than manning a stove, Blyden is often plopped on a couch watching football.
Expressing Heritage Through Food
“I have four sisters and when it comes to the holidays, I have to take a backseat,” says Blyden, who’s worked in restaurants from New York and Munich to Switzerland and the British West Indies. Currently, he’s a founding partner of the 21st Amendment Brewery in San Francisco and executive chef atvMiss Pearl’s Jam House in Oakland. “My mom will say, ‘You’re not cooking.’ I’m fine with that. I love it. I just relax and enjoy the food.”
In addition to traditional holiday staples such as turkey and stuffing, Blyden’s family celebrates their West African roots with dishes containing plantains, black-eyed peas, fritters and other foods that celebrate Sierra Leonean culture. Dishes like okra soup —“the mother of all gumbos,” in his words—and stews filled with meat and potatoes tantalize the taste buds and reconnect him to his heritage. “For as long as I can remember, food has been a central part of my life.”
The son of a Harvard-educated diplomat from Sierra Leone and Bostonian woman who graduated from Columbia University, Blyden was reared in Freetown, the largest city in Sierra Leone. The family traveled for much of his early life, moving to Massachusetts, Russia, England, back to Sierra Leone, New York, back to Sierra Leone and back to New York where he graduated from high school and chose a different path from the rest of his well-educated family.
“Because we traveled so much, we didn’t really celebrate the holidays, per se. My mom would have to remind us it was Thanksgiving,” Blyden says. “We celebrated wherever we were, which means I got to eat all types of food. Plus, I always loved to cook. I pushed off culinary school, but I eventually worked my way into some of the great kitchens in New York, including Anabelle’s. I talked my way into that first job. I went five times; on the fifth time, I got a job.”
From there, Blyden’s career path was set. He worked under Patrick Clark at the Café Metro, Alison Price at Alison and David Bouley at Bouley, among others. Looking to expand his culinary repertoire, Blyden made his way to Europe in 1991, where he worked with Hans Haas at Tantris and became a sous chef for Uli Steinle at Nouvelle in Zurich. A career detour took him to the Caribbean as executive chef of the Rendezvous Bay Hotel in Anguilla.
California Sensibility and Modern Fare
In 2000, Blyden came to San Francisco to help launch the 21st Amendment beer company, followed by the opening of The Alembic and Magnolia Pub and Brewery. These days, you’re likely to find him in the kitchen at Miss Pearl’s, a restaurant and lounge in Oakland featuring “modern southern fare with a California sensibility.” Blyden refuses to call his cuisine fusion. Instead, he says, his palate reflects all of his influences.
“I combine flavors. I may do a buerre blanc with lime, soy and ginger – combing classic French technique with Asian flavors,” Blyden says. “I may have sweet potato straws, sweet potato soup, jerk chicken and gumbo on a menu, but I’ll use my influences to create something new. I have never been to Jamaica or New Orleans, but I don’t have to. The migration of people has brought different cooking styles and ingredients [into the mainstream].”
Blyden relates two stories to illustrate his point: turning a prominent political operative into an of his seafood gumbo – “She couldn’t believe I’d never been to New Orleans,” he says and charmingly disarming inquisitive Germans who questioned his culinary chops. “I was at Tantris (a Michelin-starred restaurant in Munich, Germany) and some Germans asked me why I put rabbit in the spaetzle, which is a traditional German dish. It’s not how they do it, I was told. But by the time I finished explaining my point of view, they were sold on it. They loved it.”
As if he hadn’t traveled enough, Blyden went to Chiang Mai, Thailand to study traditional northern Thai cooking techniques. Those skills will undoubtedly be put to use as he plans his next venture, opening a new restaurant in Oakland in the future. Until then, he hopes to continue traveling and make periodic trips back to Sierra Leone.
The last time he was there was in October 2010 for his father’s funeral. People came from near and far. “The fishing women cooked fish. Other women butchered a cow. They cooked stew in these large pots starting at 10 a.m. and finishing at midnight. By the time they were done, you could smell the food from a mile away. Sierra Leone has incredible cuisine.”