As a boy growing up, a celebrity chef born and raised in New York City saw a world of different food products in the grocery stores where his Ghanaian parents shopped. The frozen and prepared food aisles were full of European, Asian, Latin and American cuisines. One particular continent was missing, and it was Africa. “All in all, it’s something that I didn’t see before 2018. I’d never seen a frozen food line or beautiful product line at Whole Foods or my local grocer with a specifically West African focus,” says chef Eric Adjepong.
The acceptance of West African cuisine and other foods from the diaspora is growing, partly because of Adjepong’s appearances on season 16 of Bravo’s “Top Chef” and season 17 of “Top Chef All-Stars.” “I think there is a lot more of an earnest longing for the food and wanting to taste it and maybe get a closer connection to the continent of Africa itself,” he says.
A New Partnership
It is perfect timing for a new partnership between Adjepong and AYO Foods, a company offering pre-prepared West African dishes and sauces. The chef and the owners of the company collaborated to bring two new AYO products to the marketplace.
“The partnership has been going without a hitch thus far. It’s stellar, and I really do enjoy it. Besides AYO and the business, the people behind it. They are family-oriented and really speak the same language I do,” Adjepong says.
Fred and Perteet Spencer founded AYO Foods in 2020. The word AYO translates to joy in the West African language of Yoruba. Joy is also the word Chef Adjepong uses to describe his relationship with the Spencers and the nutrient-dense, flavor-rich dishes they have created. “We hit it off almost immediately and really had been preaching a lot of the same gospel about the food of the diaspora and food of West Africa,” Adjepong says. “They’ve branded themselves to be a force now in the grocer and in the frozen food aisle.”
The product line includes frozen West African dishes such as AYO Foods Jollof Rice, Egusi Soup, Cassava Leaf Stew and Puff Puff Sweet Bread. The company’s shito sauce and pepper sauce are also available on grocery shelves.
The inaugural recipe collaboration with Adjepong produced two new meals, AYO Foods Chicken Yassa and Waakye. Co-founder Perteet Spencer says the partnership will help expand the company’s reach. “Chef Eric was a dream partnership for us, as he is dedicated to not just introducing, but elevating, West African cuisine under a shared belief of the power of the rich flavors in the African Diaspora to connect people across the world.”
Honoring Classic Flavors
Both dishes Chef Adjepong helped create for AYO Foods are connected to his food memories living in the Bronx. Waakye is a blend of South Sea Island red peas and jasmine rice with a red sauce. Chicken yassa is marinated and braised chicken thighs with caramelized onion, lemon and jasmine rice. “These are dishes I grew up eating. Waakye was definitely huge in my home and in the homes of my friends and family. Chicken yassa was something I grew to love from a Senegalese family that lived around my way as well,” he says. Turning these classic, traditional dishes into meals the home cook can prepare in less than five minutes was no easy task.
Both waakye and chicken yassa require hours of slow-cooking to coax out the deep, rich flavors. Adjepong spent many hours perfecting the dishes for Ayo’s mass-market distribution. “You really want to honor the ingredients and honor the process it takes to get to that end result, to that delicious meal. So we did our best, and it took a long time. We really tweaked a bunch of techniques, and we got it there,” the chef says.
Now the millennials, travelers, first-generation West Africans and flavor-loving foodies who buy AYO’s other dishes can find Adjepong’s waakye and chicken yassa in the frozen food sections of select locations of Whole Foods, Target, Kroger, Safeway, Bristol Farms and other food retailers nationwide.
The ingredients are humble. It’s ginger, garlic, habanero. It’s thyme and warm spices like clove and nutmeg. It’s things that you might be familiar with, but maybe in a combination that you may not be,” says Adjepong. “Everything is already cooked. Everything is already packaged and portioned out with your protein and your starch. In the case of the yassa, you have your chicken and your jasmine rice already packaged with the sauce that’s been braised beautifully.”
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The idea of eating a pre-prepared, frozen meal is not foreign to this acclaimed chef. As a busy entrepreneur, husband and father, Adjepong appreciates saving time in the kitchen when necessary. “Frozen food gets a bad rap sometimes, but it’s one of the best ways to store nutrients and one of the best ways to eat on the go. I’d rather eat something that I trust from a well-respected brand than maybe pick up fast food,” he says.
Pandemic Shifts Focus
Last March, the Top Chef alum was well on his way to opening a fast-casual eatery inside Union Market, a food hall in Washington, D.C. The COVID-19 pandemic shelved that idea for now. “It definitely threw a wrench in the plans, but I know with hindsight behind me that not actually going into the restaurant at that very volatile time was the best decision.”
Chicken yassa was one of the items planned for the On the Double menu, along with roti flatbreads and doubles, a popular Caribbean street snack made with fry bread and spiced chickpeas. Adjepong turned his attention instead to the AYO Foods partnership and other projects in the U.S., Caribbean and Africa.
He helped open East End Bistro, a restaurant in Accra, the capital of Ghana. “It’s beautiful, a gorgeous indoor and outdoor restaurant. We’ve been able to really kind of capture modern West African food. But then also, some homemade comfort food and it’s awesome.”
Chef Adjepong is also devoting his time to writing his first cookbook set publish in October of next year. His co-author, Korsha Wilson, is a freelance food writer who has written about the chef for the New York Times and Food & Wine.
The cookbook titled “Sankofa” will bring together stories and recipes that reflect his culinary influences and celebrate foods from West Africa, the Caribbean and the American South. He is also writing a children’s cookbook that he calls a love letter to his young daughter. “It’s a very cathartic experience, finding out about myself. It’s going to be a little bit of a memoir. It’s a lot of writing. It’s a lot of internal thoughts and a lot of recipes as well that I’m excited to share with people.”
As a graduate of Johnson & Wales, Adjepong has degrees in the culinary arts and nutrition. He also earned a Master of Public Health in International Public Health Nutrition from London’s University of Westminster. He spent years cooking in Michelin-starred New York restaurants while researching the foods of Africa, Latin America, South America, the Caribbean and America’s southern states.
The virtual cooking classes he now offers are attracting an international following. “We have people from Saudi Arabia, Canada, and Ghana making these meals as I’m doing it on the East Coast here at the same exact time. It shows you the power of the internet and the power of food,” says Adjepong. “I just found out I’ve been nominated for a cool award. I’m just thankful to everyone who has been supportive.”
That includes support from his wife, Janell Adjepong, a decorator. They started Pinch & Plate together, a customized dinner party service that the couple paused because of the pandemic. “We’re looking to pick it back up whenever we are ready. At the moment, we’re really just enjoying life with each other, life with our daughter, and everything I’ve been a part of that has taken a front seat,” says the chef, a Maryland resident.
Top Chef Rewards
The chef selected as “the People’s Champ” on season 16 of “Top Chef” is gaining new fans. Adjepong appears on Bravo TV’s “Top Chef Amateurs” this summer as a judge and assistant to the contestants. “It’s a little bit more relaxed with the amateurs there. They’re great, just people who loved the show and have been watching the seasons. They come from all walks of life, doctors, cosmetologists, mechanics and engineers. They just so happen to love to cook.”
Adjepong’s passion for cooking West African cuisine and foods from the diaspora made him stand out as a cheftestant. He was the first chef to serve traditional African dishes on the show. The bold choice to present cuisine most of the judges had not heard of or tasted opened the door for more people to learn about the food he loves. “I’m excited to see that. I think a little bit of the work I did on ‘Top Chef ‘may have helped toward this. I hope it did,” he adds.
His elimination in the semi-final round upset some fans. But a special invitation from one of the judges produced lasting rewards. Internationally celebrated chef and Crafted Hospitality owner Tom Colicchio chose Adjepong as the first of four diverse chefs to present their food at his restaurant Craft in New York City. The May 2019 event sold out. “It’s really been the gift that has kept on giving, and I’m just thankful for the opportunity to the chef for letting me do so,” says Adjepong. “He and I have been able to connect from ‘Top Chef.’ He’s an awesome person to be around. He’s a brilliant mind, and his restaurant is called Craft for a reason.”
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The Bermuda Tourism Authority invited Adjepong to cook a four-course dinner attended by the premier. The Hon. E. David Burt asked the chef to present the same four-course meal prepared at Crave. The African-influenced menu of jerk steak tartare, king crab yassa, braised lamb, and corn and goat’s milk pudding followed the journey of the transatlantic slave trade.
The experiences of cooking this special meal and being a “Top Chef” contestant taught Adjepong more about being humble. “I learned a lot about my skill set and things that I need to improve on, and things that I’m really good at as well,” he says. “All of those things, I think, play into making me a more aware chef and better chef. And hopefully, that translates into the food and how people view the artistry of my food.”
Sharing AYO Foods
The dishes Adjepong created for AYO Foods and the company’s other products will give shoppers willing to explore new flavors an introduction to West African cuisine. The partnership might also lead to more collaborations. “We definitely have spoken about introducing another product or two to the line. But for now, we’re focusing on the yassa and waakye and really trying to pump those up as much as possible.”
Chef Adjepong could not be more excited about having AYO’s West African dishes in grocery stores and sharing the cuisine he ate growing up. “If I was never a chef or not in a food space, I would be extremely proud as a West African to see this in the mainstream. It’s a really great product. The branding is beautiful. It’s very eye-catching and really embodies everything the West African food diaspora is all about.”
“The whole approach to making really great food and having people eat together is a hallmark for the way I like to eat and like to cook. It’s also what I think AYO is all about as well. That communal aspect of West African cuisine is something Adjepong loves to share with family and friends, especially his wife and two-year-old daughter Lennox. “I never saw a West African product line when I was growing up or walking through the grocery aisles with my parents as a child. To be able to share that now as an adult with my daughter, it’s pretty cool. It’s a full-circle moment.”
Follow @AYOFoods on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram or visit the company’s website to locate a retailer where you can buy Chef Adjepong’s dishes or other West African meals and sauces. Stay up-to-date on the chef’s virtual classes, cookbooks and other projects @chefericadjepong on Instagram and Twitter, or @chefadjepong on Facebook.