'Top Chef's' Eric Adjepong on Being 'The People’s Champ'
The Washington D.C.-based chef set out to prove West African cuisine has a place at the "Top Chef" table.
Some chefs enter Top Chef hoping to hone their style of cuisine, using the challenges and friendships to shape the food they’ll cook and create opportunities after they leave the competition. Chef Eric Adjepong, the charismatic cheftestant from D.C., came into the competition and knew exactly what food he wanted to cook and the story he wanted to tell. Week after week, the chef showcased the flavors of West Africa, bringing it to a global stage, oftentimes introducing the judges to the flavors and beloved dishes of the region for the first time.
In what many fans saw as the season’s most controversial elimination, Eric Adjepong was asked to pack his knives and go after serving the first course of his four-course finale meal. Adjepong had planned on telling the story of the transatlantic slave trade with his dishes, from the flavors of West Africa to southern cuisine in the United States and the other parts of the world impacted by slavery. After his elimination, an outpouring of support for the chef (and a questioning of diverse voices in judging) flooded social media, indicating that viewers connected with him and his story.
Below we caught up with the chef to get his take on what it was like to cook West African food for the judges and what’s next.
Food and Wine: What inspired you to compete on Top Chef?
Eric Adjepong: I’ve always been a fan of competition. My wife actually applied for me during Season 15 in Denver and I got as far as the final casting circuits all to find out that our wedding was on the first day of filming so I couldn’t do it.
FW: What did you think when you first met your competitors and saw them in action?
EA: Honestly not much. I came in with a healthy respect for everyone but knew ultimately that this was an Eric vs. Eric competition...with 14 other chefs around.
FW: A lot of the dishes that you made featured ingredients and techniques that the judges weren’t familiar with. Was it tough creating dishes that you knew the judges didn’t know that well? Were you motivated to introduce them to west African cuisine?
EA: Sourcing ingredients was the toughest, but with a lot of effort we were about to get a decent amount of what I needed. I was definitely motivated to introduce West African food to the judges and all of the Top Chef fans. I could have easily made modern American or classic French food but I knew that this was an opportunity bigger than me to showcase the food I grew up eating.
FW: What do you wish you had done differently in the elimination challenge?
EA: That’s such a tough question because I took all the mindful steps I wanted to when I was cooking. I guess with more time I would have went lighter on the chips.
FW: Do you have any specific dishes or techniques that you wish you had gotten the opportunity to show the judges?
EA: The last three dishes on my finale menu. I had some beautiful mantis shrimp I planned on using for my second course. I wanted to make Senegalese yassa onion jam to pair with that. I had palm wine and a bunch of other special goodies from Africa I was excited to use.
FW: You’ve gotten a lot of support online from viewers of the show. What has that support meant to you?
EA: It’s HUGE. Being called “the people’s champ” has been flattering. I just appreciate all of the support and excitement about the food I made and it’s dope to know that I made a lot of people proud.
FW: What was the biggest lesson you took away from your time on Top Chef?
EA: I learned a lot from listening and I made it a point to listen to all of the criticism the judges offered to the top and bottom chefs each week. I think the biggest take away for me was that I’m on the right path. Cooking food from the African diaspora and winning with those dishes was the validation I needed.
FW: What’s next for you? Do you have any events or dinners coming up?
EA: Thank you for asking! I’ve been hosting our “Run Our Course” pop up dinner parties in Washington, D.C. at Cork wine bar. We’re looking forward to continuing hosting in D.C. throughout the summer as we ultimately look to settle in on a brick and mortar.
Check out our interview with all three Top Chef finalists, our list of what the Season 16 cheftestants are up to now, and our Top Chef-themed tour guides to Kentucky and Macau.