Fans of Top Chef will undoubtedly be familiar with chef Eric Adjepong, a much-beloved contestant on seasons 16 and 17. As a Ghanaian-American, he was the show’s first contestant to truly highlight West African foods and flavors.
His passion for his cultural heritage was infectious, and so it comes as no surprise that he is partnering with AYO foods, a line of frozen, pre-made West African dishes like Jollof Rice and Puff Puff that launched last year and can be found in Whole Foods and Kroger stores.
Fittingly, Adjepong grew up in a very traditional Ghanian household in the Bronx. “I was the first person in my family born in the U.S.,” he says. “My parents came straight from Kumasi.” Growing up, he was fascinated by seeing his mom and other relatives in the kitchen cooking. According to Adjepong, his mom “was always trying to create new recipes,” and when it came to preparing traditional Ghanaian foods, “she was all over that,” ensuring that they were a staple at home.
Adjepong is one of the only Ghanaian chefs he knows and considers himself lucky to have had “a lot of support” from his family when it came to pursuing a culinary path. He graduated from Johnson & Wales and went on to work at several Michelin-starred restaurants, including Rouge Tomate.
Early in his career, there wasn’t much room for exploration and self-expression in the kitchen. “Being a line cook is really just keeping your head down,” he says. “There weren’t a lot of fine dining or sit-down restaurants that celebrated the food of the Diaspora. In school, we learned about Italian, French, Japanese, and so on, but not really Africa.”
His time on Top Chef was a pivotal career moment and his experiences on the show transformed the way he approaches things in the kitchen. “I think I’m bolder,” he says now. “I have a lot more confidence in the food that I’m presenting.”
The exposure from the popular Bravo show is also really paying off for him, leading to book releases, partnerships with various food brands and farms, and his latest venture with AYO. It felt serendipitous for Adjepong when he connected with Fred and Petreet Spencer, who are the husband-and-wife duo behind AYO, which means “joy” in Yoruba.
“We’re at a point in our careers where we’re channeling the same thing, which is really trying to share and spread awareness about African foods and foods in the Diaspora,” Adjepong says.
Part of what drew him to AYO was the idea that a line of frozen meals allows them to share West African foods with the masses. He developed two dishes for the brand’s recipe collection: Waakye and Chicken Yassa. Waakye is a flavorful Ghanaian rice and beans dish, and Chicken Yassa is a Senegalese dish consisting of tender chicken and caramelized onions usually served over rice.
“I love Waakye,” says Adjepong. “I like to call it the OG rice and peas.” However, while Waakye is delicious, it’s a somewhat time-consuming dish, and so part of the excitement for Adjepong is being able to “take something that requires a lot of time to make and get people 90% of the way there,” he says.
“With a lot of West African foods, it’s like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” he explains. “The longer you let it sit and stew the more, the flavors develop.” They recipe tested many times, practicing over and over to get the flavors right. The development process was essential to him so that he could capture those flavors as closely as possible for the people eating it at home.
Growing up, Adjepong, who now has a two-year-old daughter, never would have expected to see African dishes like the ones he developed in the freezer aisle of the grocery store.
“I would have freaked out when I was a kid,” he says. “Representation matters. Even if I wasn’t a chef, I would feel super proud to see something like this in the freezer.”