Millions of people have crossed oceans and trekked overland to pursue their dreams on U.S. soil. Even the pampered African prince in the 1988 movie “Coming to America” traveled to New York to look for a wife, an intelligent, strong-willed woman he could respect. The film is fiction, but a British-born chef, author and activist uses those qualities to build a new life in New York City.
“America loves an independent thinker and an independent voice. I was allowed to show up as my authentic self in every part of what I do in my writing, cooking, collaborations and partnerships,” says Zoe Adjonyoh, founder of Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen.
Coming to America
The daughter of a Ghanaian father and Irish mother devoted more than a decade of her life in the United Kingdom to raising awareness of and appreciation for the foods of Africa. Immigrating to America in 2020 gave Adjonyoh new opportunities to expand her mission beyond the barriers encountered in the U.K.
“They were celebrating me for having these conversations after the Black Lives Matter protests. But they weren’t prepared to do the difficult work of meeting what those conversations required in terms of actual output or work,” says the best-selling cookbook author and podcast host.
Coming to America also provided new sources of income for Adjonyoh. She devoted much of her time in the U.K. to educating people about modern West African food while receiving very little pay for her work. The fourth edition of her cookbook was released in the U.S. last October. “Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen: An Introduction to New African Cuisine – From Ghana with Love” made the 2021 New York Times list of Best Cookbooks of the Year.
“When I got to do the U.S. edition, I put in a lot of the ingredients that I excluded from the U.K. editions because they were not accessible at the time,” says Chef Adjonyoh. “I wanted to honor exactly the West African spices that we now sell, so I put those things back in and updated the introduction for an American audience.”
The first edition of her cookbook came out in 2017. “My greatest joy is that it resonates with people, it inspires people. People have sent me stories from all across the world about how the book has affected them.”
Adjonyoh loves the fact that her cookbook continues to touch people and open their minds about the foods from the African continent. She originally wrote it as a personal essay. It details her travels in Ghana, her relationships with food and the fun that comes from being playful and creative with African spices and other ingredients.
After moving to New York, she met several Black celebrity chefs, including Kwame Onwuachi, JJ Johnson, Tavel Bristol-Joseph and Michael W. Twitty. She was thrilled to find out they had her cookbook.
“I’m always blown away by the love for the book and the kind things people say. To know that those people had looked at that book as a guide, inspiration and tool, I couldn’t ask for more than that,” Adjonyoh says.
The British entrepreneur moved to the U.S. with her partner in business and in life, Sara Held, an American. As the head of product development, collaborations and partners, Held works alongside Adjonyoh on Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen projects. The intimate, private dining experience they started in the U.K. as Sankofa is now rebranded as Kissing Cultures.
“We are an interracial couple with an interracial food influence. We put all of that together when we cook and create a menu. It‘s a vehicle for us to cook together, have fun and be equal in it,” Adjonyoh explains.
The self-trained chef designed the 12-course supper club to demonstrate growth in her cooking style and techniques. Alexander Smalls and other NYC Black culinary elites have attended the dinners where African ingredients are celebrated. “When I’m doing supper clubs in the U.K, I’m not going to get that kind of clientele, and nobody is going to pay the real cost of the food,” says Adjonyoh. “In the U.K., I was boxed in, and it was really hard to break out of it.”
Seasons of Change
Adjonyoh had no intentions of starting a food business in 2010 when she decided to make some extra money cooking and serving peanut butter stew from a stall outside her home in East London. At the time, she was working on getting a master’s degree in creative writing. She eventually realized that the universe was telling her to cook for people and educate them about African foods like the groundnut stew she grew up eating at home.
The chef describes how things changed over the next two years. “Before I knew, I was traveling between Berlin and London doing catering, pop-ups and events. I was trying to make space for conversations about what West African food is. I was making space to celebrate the ingredients. I was making space for people to try that food.”
Some of the change the culinary activist had hoped for more than a decade ago has happened in recent years. Media attention on former Top Chef contestants Onwuachi and Eric Adjepong increased recognition of West African cuisine in America. So did the opening of African fine-dining and street food establishments in the U.K. and the work of chefs such as Jeremy Chan, Iré Hassan-Odukale, Maria Bradford and William JM Chilila. “If we were to scale it at 1to10, with ten being highly visible, I’m going to say back in 2010 we were on like a 1, maybe a 2. I think now, nearly 13 years later, we’re on a 5 or 6,” says Adjonyoh.
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The founder of Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen knows her mission to decolonize the food world still requires more platforms and spaces for Black chefs and restaurateurs to shine. She admires award-winning, innovative chefs of new African cuisine, such as Dieuveil Malonga in Rwanda and StudioKitchen’s Shola Olunloyo in Philadelphia.
Adjonyoh also thinks about the names no one recognizes. “I personally know hundreds of chefs across America, the U.K., Europe and the rest of the world who make amazing food. They have beautiful stories about their food and do not have platforms. I’m very excited by the movement and the growth in recent years. But there is still more work to do in giving more African voices a stage to celebrate their food.”
The success of AYO Foods is giving Ajonyoh a new space to share her culinary talents. The Black-owned frozen West African food company based in Chicago partnered with the chef on two new entrees. Her plant-based, vegan Aboboi stew and her chicken groundnut stew are available in the frozen food aisles of Sprouts Farmers Markets nationwide.
“Once you get enough people putting out products like that and changing supermarket shelves, that’s when you know we’ve done it,” says Adjonyoh. “It’s a moment of being seen. It’s being able to go into a grocery store for products you are familiar with from your childhood or family that you would normally go to a specialty store to get.”
Funding Future Projects
Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen has other projects stewing as Adjonyoh transitions into being a U.S. entrepreneur. She and Held already have partnerships with African farmers and coops that will provide spices and other products for an e-commerce business. “By the end of this year, I’m hoping we’ll be in a position to re-launch the e-commerce platform and brands. I’m very confident it’s going to blow up, and it’s going to be good,” she says.
For now, Adjonyoh works full-time as the director of women’s leadership at the James Beard Foundation. The job provides financial stability while the chef and author raises funds for the e-commerce business and two other projects. One of them is the “Cooking Up Consciousness” podcast she launched on Apple’s website. Season One’s 13 episodes featured conversations with food historian Twitty, cookbook author Samah Dada and writer Alicia Kennedy. Adjonyoh needs a sponsor to offer a second season of the podcast she created to have conversations with people raising consciousness in their field.
Money donated through a crowdfunding website will pay for publishing a new book Adjonyoh is editing. “Serving Up: Essays on Food, Identity and Culture” focuses on food writings from marginalized or underrepresented authors, including Therese Nelson and Lenore T. Adkins.
The book is about 71% funded on Unbound. “It’s a gorgeous group of mostly people of color, whose styles, voices and narratives may have gotten sidelined from mainstream media. This is part of the work of decolonizing the food industry and making space for alternative narratives, perspectives and opinions on food, food industry or hospitality,” Adjonyoh says.
Staying True to Self
As a storyteller, the chef and cookbook author wants her work to give people unfamiliar with Africa or its foods the true scope of the diversity and plurality of cuisines from a continent with 54 countries and 1.2 billion people.
“I want people to have the same relationship with African foods that they have with Italian and French foods. These are huge countries with different tribal regions, landscapes, environments and ingredients. That’s what I want people to understand, the beautiful nuance and diversity of African cuisine.”
With all that she has accomplished with Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, the U.K. native is most proud of what she now represents as a resident of New York and a citizen of the world. “I’m most proud of doing enough work in the world and on myself that I’m in a place where I can show up as my authentic self every day. I get to work in alignment with my values,” she says.
Whether she is cooking, writing, hosting or advocating, Adjonyoh celebrates her ties to Ghana. She traveled there to spend time with her Ghanaian father’s mother before working on the 2017 edition of her cookbook.
“It was a moment in my journey when I was ready to reconnect with my culture and roots in a different way, in a tangible, hands-to-earth way. I wanted to understand who I was through the lens of my grandmother and my family. That was priceless as an experience.”
The chef and her partner returned to explore and learn more about Ghana in 2018 and 2019. They plan to spend at least one month in Africa every year. Her grandmother always said to her, “Go and come back,” which is what the Ghanaian word sankofa means.
Adjonyoh’s grandmother, Cynthia Wilson, was famous in Ghana for establishing the first prenatal clinic and creating safe environments for women and babies. She passed away a few years ago. The chef and entrepreneur believes her passion for sharing knowledge comes from a special bond with the remarkable woman.
“I know my grandmother is on my shoulder all the time. She made so much of who I am. She was a very spirited, strong, kind, compassionate, funny and learned woman with a passion for social justice and creating safe spaces.”
Go to Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen (Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen (zoesghanakitchen.com)) for the latest on this West African food pioneer’s projects. Follow the chef and author on Instagram and Twitter. Listen to the playlist for Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen on Spotify.