Chef Zoe Adjonyoh Is Not Here to Summarize African Food for You
“I feel held here, in a way I don’t feel in the U.K.,” Zoe Adjonyoh said on a recent morning in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Adjonyoh is contemplative, even careful when speaking about her career in London as one of the U.K.’s most visible Ghanaian chefs. When I ask Adjonyoh what it’s like to wear that title, she paused. “It’s a bit much, actually.”
In 2010, Adjonyoh set up a stall selling "Zoe’s peanut butter stew"—fragrant bowls of Scotch bonnet-spiced lamb broth with tomatoes—near an art festival, hoping to make a few bucks. She had no idea that a simple dish so common in Ghanaian households would start her on a path to chefdom, leading to dinner parties, pop-ups, and her own fast-casual restaurant at Pop Brixton in South London.
In 2017, she released Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, a cookbook that delved deeper into her story of having a Ghanaian father and Irish mother, while expounding on her love of West African flavors. The chef is bringing her unique style of Ghanaian cuisine to the United States with Sankofa, an intimate dinner series highlighting West African ingredients that she'll be hosting when she becomes a resident. The 12-course dinners will be held in an apartment, which adds to the feeling of being at a friend's party. There’s no set schedule; Adjonyoh hosts when she wants.
“Sankofa loosely translates to ‘go back and fetch it’ and is the next and natural progression of my journey into the culinary adventures of Africa,” Adjonyoh explains on her website. At a recent Sankofa, shrimp were spiced with dawadawa, a seasoning made from locust bean and served with millet cooked like jollof rice and transformed into a crisp. Suya, the street food found all over Accra, was an appetizer of spicy grilled steak with groundnut purée and plantain. She writes, “Consider Sankofa the footprints of an older culinary child, more balanced, seasoned, adventurous and ever more curious about the possibilities for African gastronomy."
“At the beginning I was willing into existence being able to have a voice that would encourage other people to join in that conversation,” Adjonyoh said. She'll host Sankofa dinners in both the U.K. and United States, in hopes of building community in both countries. It’s an interesting move at a moment when food media in London and New York is just starting to scratch the surface of Africa’s culinary diversity.
In London, in particular, Adjonyoh appreciates the increased interest in African food, thanks to the work of chefs like Maria Bradford, Iré Hassan-Odukale, and Jeremy Chan of the Michelin-starred Ikoyi. Even the Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen pop-ups she hosted in her London apartment helped boost awareness of regional African cooking.
“I think I contributed to that conversation for sure, and I’m proud of that contribution, but there’s so much more that can be done,” she said. It's still difficult to separate the U.K. from its long history of colonialism, which stamps out the culture of the oppressed to cement the colonizer's cultural supremacy. Ghana, a former colony of Great Britain, has its own culinary footprint with unique source material worthy of exploration and appreciation, Adjonyoh says. And yet, in the culinary world, chefs like Adjonyoh are often boxed out of accolades, commercial opportunities, and chances to tell their stories in the media without being reduced to representatives of the entire African continent.
“Colonialism is so ingrained in British culture, and there is no Black resource in the U.K.,” Adjonyoh said. African chefs working in the U.K. can feel as though they’re “working in silos." When they do present food inspired by their backgrounds, it doesn’t get the same attention as, say, the new French or Italian restaurant where the executive chef trained under so-and-so.
“There are African chefs working to do what they love, but it doesn’t get the same sort of love or appreciation as the new burger spot opening," she said; it's especially frustrating given that British food media will only “spotlight one African chef at a time."
“I got to a point where I was like, ‘The only way this can grow is if there’s more voices and there’s more than one voice at a time,’” she said.
So Adjonyoh is working to create throughlines from Ghana to London to the United States and embed herself in a global community of African chefs. But she’s quick to point out that while the menu is inspired by Ghana, she’s not speaking for all Ghanaians, only from her perspective. “I still don’t know everything about Ghanaian food,” she said, shaking her head. And she’s certainly not speaking for Africa—“How can I be the voice of 54 countries? This is my story about my connection to the food and it’s my interpretation."
There's a lot to be done. Looking at the foot traffic moving along Columbus Avenue, she looked determined. “It’s about representation of Black people," she said. "Full stop.”