The chef cooked his four-course history of the transatlantic slave trade for a sold-out event at Tom Colicchio's Craft.
If you think Eric Adjepong was robbed, you’re not alone. The Washington D.C.-based chef took his exceptional skills and fervent commitment to showcasing West African cuisine all the way to the end of season 16 of Top Chef before getting eliminated in the semi-final round when the first course of what would have been his four-course finale meal failed to impress the judges enough to give him a shot at the title. The outcry was immediate and brought up issues of cultural representation and gatekeeping within the restaurant industry and culinary conversation at large.
Adjepong’s tenure on Top Chef was marked by both wins and obstacles — some of his ingredients, flavors, and textures required the chef to speak up “with all due respect” to give the judges more context for his dishes. But the fact that he had the platform of Top Chef to educate and introduce viewers to the Ghanaian dishes he grew up and made it as far as he did, coupled with the outpouring of support from fans is certainly a plus. And Adjepong’s unrealized finale meal — a four-course journey through the history of the transatlantic slave trade — didn’t simply disappear with his departure from the cooking competition. In fact, it was indeed realized Monday night at Craft in New York City during a sold-out dinner presented by Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio and Crafted Hospitality, the first of four dinner highlighting chefs telling diverse and personal stories through their food.
I previewed Adjepong’s dinner before the event, which focused on the confluence of cuisines at the major ports involved in the trading of African slaves during the 18th and 19th centuries. The meal began with a Caribbean jerk steak tartare with tamarind, plantain, and finger lime, followed by king crab with yassa onion jam, palm wine nage, and Caroline puffed rice.
Then a dish of braised lamb, cassava pavé, and grains of paradise jus, and finally a floral dessert of corn and goat’s milk pudding with hibiscus tapioca, chocolate rum crumble, and blackberry lavender sorbet. Each course was accompanied with an explanation from of its origins and influences, and each was rich with flavors that were individually distinguishable while creating a chorus the familiar and relatively unfamiliar on my palate.
I emailed Chef Adjepong to find out how the dinner came together and what’s next for both this menu and the man himself.
Adam Campbell-Schmitt: What does it mean to you have an opportunity to share this menu, despite your unfortunate eleventh-hour elimination from Top Chef?
Eric Adjepong: It means a lot to come back and finish the story I intended to share. I don't take the experience for granted.
ACS: How did the collaboration with Tom Colicchio and Crafted Hospitality come about?
EA: Soon after the finale elimination, there was a fair amount of conversation and backlash on social media. Tom graciously reached out and asked if I would be interested in finishing the story through a dinner at Craft. His team at Crafted Hospitality was putting together series enabling guest chefs to share their stories and connect with diners more deeply through food, and I was invited to kick off that initiative. The whole experience has been very meaningful.
ACS: How does the story of the transatlantic slave trade manifest itself in these dishes in particular?
EA: The story of the transatlantic slave trade is manifested primarily through the ingredients I use, and their migration from ports in West Africa to ports in South America (particularly Brazil), the Caribbean, and the American South. Things like sorrel, cassava, Carolina Gold rice, palm wine, and others. These are indigenous West African ingredients that have become prominent in other parts of the world through trade.
ACS: I keep thinking back to the egusi stew episode of Top Chef, which highlighted the disparity between West African and American/European palates when it comes to flavors and textures — essentially your dish was somewhat lost in translation. How much of this meal is translated?
EA: None of the dishes have been completely translated, but there are elements that I've played around with. For instance, sorrel is traditionally drunk as a sweet tea in West Africa and the Caribbean, but I flipped this notion on its head and made a dessert out of it. Or instead of using cassava to make fufu, I created a pavé.
ACS: Where do this menu and story go from here?
EA: Good question. I'd love to share the story with anyone who wants to hear it. I've been invited to cook this menu in other cities, including Houston and L.A., which tells me that people across the country are ready to try West African food.
ACS: Are there other stories you’re yearning to tell?
EA: There are still more dishes I'd love to interpret and offer a new perspective on. There's another iteration of the menu I'm experimenting with that dives deeper into Caribbean and Southern flavors.
ACS: Can you give us an update on your upcoming projects?
EA: I'm cooking for MOFAD tomorrow (May 15) as part of a gala celebrating Africa's contributions to American cuisine. Coming up in June is the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. Then I'm heading to the Caribbean, where I'll have the chance to go back to an indigenous style of cooking as part of IGNITE, a night of Bahamian culture through food, music, and art. I'm grateful for these opportunities to travel and continue sharing my culinary point of view as I look toward a long-term goal of opening a restaurant.
As for Tom Colicchio and Crafted Hospitality’s dinner series, future guest chefs will include Omar Tate of The Henry at Life Hotel and founder of Honeysuckle pop-up on May 20, 2019, Behzad Jamsidi of Moosh on June 3, 2019, and Gabriella Alvarez of Liberation Cuisine on June 17, 2019. For tickets and more information visit craftrestaurant.com/events-press.