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Nancy Solomon: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Nancy Solomon in for Tanzina. We're going to round out the hour with a high-stakes trip into the kitchen. Last week, the 18th season of the cooking competition show Top Chef premiered on Bravo. The series brings together talented chefs from across the country to showcase their culinary skills and the food that defines them. The contestants who don't make it to the next round, are dismissed with this refrain.
Speaker 6: Please pack your knives and go.
Nancy: The latest season of Top Chef was shot in Portland, Oregon during the pandemic, but that isn't the only thing different about season 18. This one has a higher number of Black chefs judging the contestants. This past fall in a piece for The Washington Post, food writer Johnna French found that Black chefs were underrepresented both as contestants and judges over the course of the show's history. That lack of representation extends far beyond Top Chef into many other popular cooking shows, and the fine-dining world as a whole.
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Nancy: With me now to talk about his experience on the show is Eric Adjepong, Top Chef finalist and cookbook author. Eric, great to have you here.
Eric Adjepong: Nancy, thank you so much. How are you?
Nancy: I'm good. Beautiful spring day here in New Jersey, coming to you from home.
Eric: It's hard to beat, yes.
Nancy: Before we get into your time on Top Chef, tell us about the food that you've cooked and highlighted over the course of your career.
Eric: It's been mostly food of really the African diaspora, first-generation Ghanaian American. My folks came to the states in the late '80s. A lot of the inspiration and the flavors and techniques and I guess combinations of all that, that I draw my inspiration from, comes from that very source. A lot of things that I grew up eating, a lot of things that I grew up around as well.
I was lucky enough to grow up in a very diverse neighborhood as far as Caribbean communities and Hispanic communities and Jewish communities, Italian communities not too far nearby in the Bronx in New York. It just so happened that I fell into my industry and this craft, that I can pick up all those inspirations and techniques of my childhood.
Nancy: Sounds delicious. Had you seen chefs cook Ghanaian or other types of West African food on television before you went on Top Chef?
Eric: Unfortunately, not quite. You see it sporadically, maybe in like local television or highlighted in a piece on a travel channel or something like that, but nothing that really focused for a long arching series or season at least that focused on West African food or Ghanaian food specifically.
When I had the opportunity to come on Top Chef, I knew I could have went any route as far as making modern American or modern French food or Italian food, which I was trained in, but I figured that I had a really unique advantage or viewpoint if I were to come into the competition, with a little bit of the background that I had from this West African influences and the ingredients that I brought in as well. It fared well for me.
Nancy: You've been on Top Chef twice as a contestant, and both times you were eliminated during the competitions when you based your meals around the history of the transatlantic slave trade. Let's pick that all apart, but first, tell us what you were trying to do by combining that story with food and how were you trying to do that?
Eric: The first season, or my first season rather on season 16, I had made it all the way up into the finale and had the opportunity to cook any four dishes that I wanted to for, I guess, my offering. I wanted to really tell the story of the transatlantic slave trade. It's an unfortunate story but I've never heard it or experienced that story being told through food and there's a whole long arc of the ingredients that were brought by and brought to the new world and the cooking techniques and some of the food and the meals that we grow and love today here in American South, jambalaya and gumbo, are all akin to traditional West African dishes.
I really wanted to highlight that as much as possible in four courses. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to do that. I was eliminated right before I could. When season 17 came, ironically yes, I was eliminated presenting that premise in a restaurant. That was more so just technical issues, how [unintelligible 00:05:26] I knew exactly why I fell off. It was a bad cook. I completely took-- Honestly, I guess it's more ironic that it happened on both of those times, but the first time around on season 16, when I was in it, it was weird because I'm so much in the fog, but when I got back home and it reached social media and there was such an uproar, there was a huge fanfare and push for me to actually be able to tell that story. Tom Colicchio, the head judge of Top Chef allowed me to do so at his restaurant, Craft, in New York.
Eric: I was able to do that in a few other places as well. I cooked for the president of Bermuda with the same four courses as well, which is really fun. In different ways, I was able to cook the same meal and really enjoyed those [unintelligible 00:06:21] as well.
Nancy: The Washington Post article made the argument that the lack of Black judges is an economic issue, that ultimately this disadvantages Black and brown chefs who are trying to make it in the restaurant business. Do you agree with that?
Eric: No. I really think there's a good group of talent that look like me and they have a voice to say. I think there's a hold on a lot of what the word is about food and the gatekeepers of food, so to speak. I'm looking forward to new voices and new blood, so to speak, coming in and really putting their thoughts and their minds behind the food that we eat.
Nancy: You're based in Washington, DC, and this is our show's first week broadcasting on WAMU in the city. What should people know about D.C.'s West African culinary scene?
Eric: Is growing, it's budding. There's so many great restaurants coming up and hopefully making their way out of the pandemic. Bukom [unintelligible 00:07:22] are two that come to mind out in D.C. D.C. is so known for East African food and Central African food, but West African food and chefs are definitely making their way up. Kith and Kin was a restaurant that I was a part of that closed down before the pandemic, but a really strong push into that direction as well. Yes, come to D.C. Eat some great African food in general, honestly. It's all over the continent, great restaurants all over the city.
Nancy: You've also been on Chopped and Beat Bobby Flay. Was the judging environment similar on those shows?
Eric: Yes. Ultimately, I didn't see anyone that looked directly like me being a judge or deliberating on the dish, ultimately. Again, for me, it's not necessarily something that's extremely far-fetched. Coming in culinary school, there wasn't a lot of people that look like me. Working up in the industry there weren't a lot of people that look like me. In an unfortunate way kind of, it is what it is and second nature, but I really, really will hope and wish to see more chefs of the African diaspora coming in and deliberating. There's a whole other world and psyche around food and understanding of palette and textures and ingredients and things like that, that I think the expertise of a judge who understands that can really take a show to the next level.
Nancy: This lack of representation in a TV cooking show, it also occurs in culinary schools and high-end kitchens, doesn't it?
Eric: Yes, definitely. For sure, it's just an unfortunate reality of the facts. There aren't just a lot of African American or just people of the diaspora, period, in the culinary space. As great as my undergrad was in Johnson [unintelligible 00:09:28] University, there really wasn't much of an understanding of like African food.
All four years I studied Italian and French and modern American and the different types of Asian cuisines as well, but nothing really that came from the continent. If it was, it was very sporadic and nothing too detailed. It was one thing that bothered me leaving school. I say this all the time. I say this all the time, but Africa being the second biggest continent in the world and the food being so underrepresented doesn't make too much sense to me, especially in my field.
Being that I come from, or have direct lineage to the continent and to the country specifically, and then also have these understanding of modern technique and how to compose a dish and make it look good and also make it taste good, I feel like it's my duty to put those two worlds together.
Nancy: Speaking to the people who are really biased in favor of say Italian and French food, and just believe in their hearts that it's the best food to eat, what dish would you put in front of them and what would you say? Tell us about a dish and why it's so good and worthy of their attention, respect and eating.
Eric: You know what, that's a really-- I love Italian food. I love [unintelligible 00:10:57]
Nancy: Yes, of course
Eric: It's hard to beat. They're masters at their craft, honestly. I think when you put a dish like jollof rice or [unintelligible 00:11:09] or maybe some fried fish or tilapia and some [unintelligible 00:11:17] or some fufu and you really compare the two, you're eating-- I mean, I guess the easiest sense, it's apples and oranges, honestly are two different kind of cuisines, so to speak, but you are eating food, you are getting culture, you are getting experience and you are getting stories as well, the same way you would get in Italy or in France or in Asia.
Being open to the cuisine and the use of spices and ingredients that you might be familiar with, tumeric or all spice or ground ginger and garlic, but maybe in combinations that you may not be used to, and be really unique and tasty to you as well. Just be open with any cuisine that you've tried in the past and you've never had it before. You had an open mind and you went in really curious and that's really the push that we're looking for with African cuisine.
Nancy: Well, let's talk about fufu because when I had an opportunity to go to Africa, it was a revelation to me. I had never heard of it and I loved it. I think you could make the argument that it hits the sweet spot between pasta and polenta. How would you describe it? Because to me, fufu really takes on Italian food straight on.
Eric: Absolutely. When it comes to Italian, the running joke with a lot of African [unintelligible 00:12:49] West African Bob's is making sure that you're beyond fed before you leave the house. Fufu was one of those dishes that keeps you satiated and holds you down for a long time. Much like a pasta dish or a really big meal in Italy. You can have lunch and pretty much be good for later on in the day. Fufu is just honestly, it's pounded and steamed plantain, green plantain and cassava. Either one of the both or a combination of two.
As it's steamed, it's pounded and it becomes super, super supple, enough to a point where you can almost like, it's a swallow. You can pick it up and it has that polenta kind of consistency or qualities to it, like you mentioned. It's delicious. It's like a blank canvas, so it's a really versatile vessel. You can add any sort of soups or stews or chutneys or whatever the case that you want to. It's just like the perfect way to pick up your protein or honestly, whatever vegetable or grain that you have. Then you can pick up your sauce, your soup with it, either with the spoon or traditionally with a clean hand, and you're good to go. It's honestly delicious.
Nancy: Sounds terrific. Eric Adjepong is a Top Chef finalist and cookbook author. Eric, thanks so much.
Eric: Absolutely Nancy. Thank you so much.
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