When an abundance of blessings begin to flow into your life, it is only natural to take inventory of the prayers, dreams and effort that came before the good fortune. Chef Eric Adjepong appreciates just how incredible a year 2018 has been for him. “You know, you pray for all these things to happen. Then you just don’t know when it’s going to happen. God has a funny way of keeping you on your toes.” says the Season 16 “Top Chef” contestant.
Adjepong’s appearance on the Bravo show that debuted December 6 coincided with a flurry of media coverage for the co-owner of Pinch & Plate, a mobile dining service based in the Washington, D.C. area. He and his wife Janell also celebrated the birth of their first child, a daughter they named Lennox. “It’s just an overall maturation for me at least. It’s definitely placed a lot of responsibilities in my lap,” says the 31-year-old private chef.
Top Chef Toughest Challenge
One of those responsibilities is making the most of his time competing against other talented chefs on television. Adjepong took on the challenge with a determination to focus attention on the beauty of cuisine from the African Diaspora, especially West Africa. As an avid viewer of “Top Chef” and other TV cooking shows, he knew it would push him far beyond where his culinary talents had already taken him. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done by far, and I’ve done some really difficult things.”
Chef Adjepong did well on the first episode’s elimination challenge, winning praise from the judges for the West African-inspired scallop dish with a Ghanaian shito honey glaze he prepared for 200 guests at a Kentucky Derby party. The American-born son of parents, who emigrated to the U.S. from Ghana, recognizes the platform “Top Chef” has given him to showcase his culinary perspective. “For me to be placed there with them knowing that is my philosophy with the lot of the stuff that I cook, it just lets me know there is a place at the table, so to speak, for what I’m trying to do,” Adjepong says.
Even equipped with a culinary arts associate degree from Johnson & Wales University and experience working in two of New York City’s Michelin Star rated establishments as well as other premier restaurants, “a very humble ear” still might be the most useful tool Adjepong took with him into the competition. He prepared himself to accept criticism from judges with well-versed palates and use their comments to grow and sharpen his skills while cooking from the heart. “So, I came into it knowing that, but I also came into it knowing that I needed to control everything that was in my power,” Adjepong says. “Do it as best you can. Leave it all on the line, and hopefully, it will take you far.”
Top Chef Connection
His connection to a “Top Chef” alum put Adjepong on the path to Kentucky where he competed against 14 other culinary stand-outs. Kwame Onwuachi not only recommended his friend for the competition but also offered advice on the impact the show would have on Adjepong’s life.
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The two chefs both grew up in the Bronx. Their mutual love of food inspired by African, Caribbean and Southern cuisines brought them together in the kitchen of D.C.’s Kith and Kin, launched by Ouwuachi as creator and executive chef in 2017. Adjepong took on sous-chef duties to help open the critically-praised restaurant and get feedback from the public’s response to the Afro-Caribbean food. “I think it is welcomed. There’s so much mystery behind it. I feel like there are also a lot of parallels too that people don’t necessarily see,” Adjepong says. “A lot of food that is so familiar to the American palate and Caribbean palate is African food, especially West African food.”
Sexy Chef Finalist
About one month before the start of the new “Top Chef” season, Adjepong showcased his cooking talents on Food Network when People magazine’s “Sexiest Chef Alive” aired. His selection as a sexy chef finalist for the title did not surprise Janell Adjepong, featured with him in an Essence magazine article on their wedding last year. “She gets a kick out of this. She says that she’s been telling me this for years.”
Chef Adjepong calls his wife his “#1 fan” and acknowledges that her vision for his success, perhaps, exceeds his own. Janell submitted the Food Network application for his first appearance on “Chopped.” He placed second and went on to compete against another chef on “Beat Bobby Flay.” Although he did not win in either of those shows, he counts her encouragement and support among his blessings. “For her do this, and for it to lead to everything it’s led to; yeah, I’m glad that she is in my corner, for sure.”
Partners in Pinch & Plate
The Adjepongs met at a New York party in 2013. Janell asked him to help her put together a dinner party for some girlfriends. The chemistry between the chef and the interior decorator produced a business and a marriage. She is the “Pinch” who creates the table settings and atmosphere for their clients. He is the “Plate” who selects the menu and prepares the food. They provide everything needed for an exceptional dining experience but the table, chairs and kitchen.
The Pinch & Plate mobile dining service that unofficially began with Janell’s dinner went on to include weddings, birthday parties and holiday gatherings. They recently moved to Columbia, Md., where Janell lived before attending Howard University and George Washington University. “She has a vision. It’s good when it’s great; when you both love it, and you’re both having a good time. It doesn’t feel like work,” the chef says.
West African Roots/Black American Experience
Adjepong was around 16 years old when he began to identify cooking as a possible career choice. He fell in love with the joys of preparing West African food when the enticing smells from his mother’s cooking pulled him into her kitchen. “She’s the one that helped me get the palate that I have now. It’s not only her. It’s my aunt and my uncle. I come from a family of really good cooks.”
The chef’s parents, Benjamin and Abena Adjepong, raised their four children with a deep connection to Ghanaian culture. His dad put in long hours as a taxi driver while his mother worked at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City. Eric describes himself as a food nerd who identifies with his African roots and his experiences as a Black man in America. “I am African-American, probably in the truest sense of the word,” Adjepong says. “If I walk around on the street, nine times out of ten no one is noticing me as Eric the African. They notice me as Eric the African-American. Those are the experiences I walk around with every day.”
His African-American experiences include joining a Black fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, Inc. Adjepong also worked at Harlem Children’s Zone. He helped educate families on how to choose and prepare healthier meals. “I understood what food was doing, not only to my body but to the communities around me and the people that looked like me. I wanted to learn more, so that I could be more of an asset to my community,” Adjepong says.
The work he did with the non-profit was a natural extension of the two other college degrees the chef holds. Adjepong has a bachelor’s in Culinary Nutrition from Johnson & Wales and a master’s in International Public Health Nutrition from the University of Westminster. He passed up an opportunity to work at Volt, “Top Chef” alum Bryan Voltaggio’s Maryland restaurant, to pursue his graduate degree in London. Although he is confident that the job with Voltaggio would have been a solid foundation for success, he has no regrets about his decision. “The whole time that I was in England was a great time for me to clear my mind and have a reset; to learn more about food, public health and nutrition; and to go back to Ghana, eat the food and really get familiar with the cuisines and dishes.”
Chef Adjepong returned to the U.S. in 2012 with a richer and broader understanding of his passion for West African/Caribbean/Southern American influences on food. He also came back with the same belief in the ability of immigrants to succeed in America demonstrated by his family, including his parents and his aunt Agatha Wahab, a retired registered nurse.
“She came here with I think $300 in her pocket. To see where she is right now, the person that she is, the children that she has and the success that comes from them are inspiring,” he says.
Adjepong still sees opportunity through the fog of the current political climate for immigrants in this country. His encouragement comes from the critical acclaim and recognition achieved by Black celebrity chefs such as Marcus Samuelsson, Edouardo Jordan and Kwame Ouwuachi. He is confident that aspiring chefs can accomplish their goals by working hard, investing in themselves and learning from others. “Each one, teach one. We’re all here to advance not only the craft but the culture as well. I appreciate everything that they’ve done because it makes things for me and hopefully, the folks that come after me, a little easier.”
That optimistic viewpoint extends to the future of Pinch & Plate. Adjepong and his wife are adding pop-up dinners to the culinary adventures they offer in the Washington metropolitan area. No matter where he finishes on “Top Chef,” the rigors of the experience have elevated his sense of self-worth and fortified the dream he and Janell have of opening a brick and mortar restaurant.
Right now, Chef Adjepong’s spends his time on expanding Pinch & Plate and teaching West African Street Food and other classes at CulinAerie in D.C. His most important mission besides sharing his culinary concepts with the public might be the great expectations he has for teaching his daughter and any future children about the connections between family, love and food. “That’s one thing I want her to realize and remember. When you cook, it brings comfort, and it brings people together. But it is also a very loving gesture.”
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