Kojo Nnamdi, reluctant foodie

By Tim Carman
Tuesday, March 22, 2011; 6:13 PM

It was a "food" program like no other. Kojo Nnamdi and his production team had set up shop in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, last November, nearly 11 months after an earthquake killed more than 200,000 people and left even more scrambling for sustenance and shelter in tent cities. Nnamdi wasn't there to conduct, as Anthony Bourdain had in a recent episode of "No Reservations," some liberal-guilt exercise to feed the hungry and then chronicle the "Lord of the Flies"-like results. WAMU's "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" was there to talk with two people "committed to reviving Haitian agriculture as a way to getting the economy back on track."

Guest Regine Barjon, chief officer of BioTek Solutions and marketing director of the Haitian-American Chamber of Commerce, told Nnamdi how the Haitian government's decision to lower tariffs on rice in the 1990s had crippled and penalized local farmers. Nnamdi listened patiently and then sniffed out what sounded like a Haitian policy designed to benefit American agriculture:

"Allow me interrupt for a second, Regine, because President Bill Clinton is on the record as saying that he now believes it was a mistake to increase the penetration of American rice into Haiti, which a lot of people believe made it impossible for Haitian farmers to compete at the global level. Where do you see the local effects of that policy, and how has it affected the farmers you work with?"

It was a quintessential Kojo Nnamdi moment: polite, informed and just pointed enough to pique your curiosity. That is, in a nutshell, what Nnamdi and his crack production crew bring to the table each week when discussing food. Their approach is not to treat food as poetry or pornography - that is, something so rarefied or sensual that it's divorced from gritty reality - but to connect food to politics, culture, economics and so many other forces that drive our daily lives.

Not to put too fine a point on this, but Nnamdi is the perfect person to make those connections - and not just because he's on public radio. He's the perfect person because he's not a chef or a cookbook author. He doesn't have a reputation to protect in the arena of food, and he doesn't have a product to promote. Nnamdi, in short, is not a foodie, which means he's not afraid to ask an obvious (read: simple) question or feel the need to gush like a love-struck teenager over a dish that, in all honesty, might be merely average. In a time of culinary hyperbole, Nnamdi's dispassion is his selling point.

At 66 years of age, Nnamdi has enjoyed a long career in local media, much of it with Howard University's radio and television stations before moving to WAMU (88.5 FM) in 1998 to replace Derek McGinty as host of its afternoon talk show. Despite his wealth of experiences, Nnamdi has been covering food regularly only since summer 2009, when he and his WAMU producers felt comfortable enough to devote a portion of each Wednesday's show to the subject. (It starts at noon.)

Nnamdi's main love, of course, is politics, and yet he's not a typical firebrand, even if the Guyana native originally immigrated to the United States in the late 1960s in part to join the civil rights movement. WRC-TV's Tom Sherwood, the resident analyst for Nnamdi's weekly Politics Hour, describes his host as an old-fashioned "gentleman" whose soft-spoken approach can lull an unsuspecting guest into a false complacency. Before you know it, Sherwood says, Nnamdi will want to know if the guest really did "take all that money, and it sounds like he's asking you out for a date."

Clearly, Nnamdi's experience in Washington's politics and public affairs has influenced his approach to food coverage, but it also appears to have made him acutely sensitive to distortion and spin, those hallmarks of public speaking in political circles. (Or maybe that sensitivity comes from an early mentor, Walter Rodney, a Caribbean activist from Guyana who taught Nnamdi to "be self-critical, to think independently, to really follow logic," as the talk-show host noted during a First Personal Singular interview for The Washington Post Magazine in January 2001.)

Whatever the case, you won't hear many James Beard Foundation Award winners talk like this:

"Virtually all the cooking shows you see on television or the stuff you read in magazines and newspapers, the people who are presenting it have some degree of expertise," he tells me over lunch at Indique Heights, one of his favorite restaurants.

"For me, since I have none, I think what evolved is that I was the average listener, especially the average male listener, who likes to eat but doesn't know a great deal about what's going on. And that has, in a way, defined the show: the fact that I'm curious, that I like to eat and that I enjoy asking at times what may appear to be dumb questions about what goes into what. Everybody else knows what goes into what on most dishes. I'm clueless. I don't know what goes into anything."

Regardless of the host's cluelessness, "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" has indeed copped a James Beard award: It won last year in the audio webcast or radio show category. That no doubt helps explain why Nnamdi, in retrospect, describes the show's decision to cover food as a "no-brainer." But why did Nnamdi decide to adopt food as a topic? It seems that the show's interest in food wasn't exactly organic and wasn't exactly mandated but was a sort of hazy combination of both.

Several years ago, Mark McDonald, programming director for WAMU, suggested Nnamdi's team add another regular show to the weekly lineup - such as Tech Tuesdays or the Politics Hour on Fridays - which would then build an audience of like-minded listeners, who would in turn routinely tune in to the show. At least that's the theory. The day-to-day hassles of committing to a regular subject are obvious, notes Diane Vogel, the show's managing producer. Week in and week out, producers have to find topics that will engage listeners, plus guests who can clear their schedules for Wednesday afternoons and who can actually tell good stories - not just be famous.

"Sometimes the best novelist is the worst guest, because they're novelists," Vogel says. "The same for chefs."

The show also has a small band of producers who have all, at some time, lived in another country, which has made them curious about the food of other cultures. Brendan Sweeney, according to his official online bio, was "raised on three continents." Michael Martinez lived for three years in Jordan, while fellow producer Ingalisa Schrobsdorff has lived in Japan and France.

"They all bring an intellectual curiosity that, frankly, is greater than mine about the food aspects of these cultures," Nnamdi says. "I'm interested in the cultural aspects of the food, and they're interested in the food aspects of the culture."

That intersection of food and culture has made for some compelling radio, particularly for the show's "Local Restaurant World Tour," an ongoing series with an oxymoronic title, which looks at international cuisines through the lens of area eateries. The tour has already explored Korean, Vietnamese, Salvadoran, Ethiopian, Chinese and other cuisines, all of which have stories to tell about immigration and assimilation and transformation. With another set of shows, Nnamdi chronicled Washington's own history through the evolution of its cuisine. (Disclaimer: I have appeared gratis on several of Nnamdi's programs.) Those aspects of food please the host very much.

"I am always keenly conscious of being both the outsider looking in, having come from a different culture, and the ultimate insider, because I've been here for so long in Washington," says Nnamdi. "So I'm always thinking about how a variety of cultures view something. I probably would not be interested in talking about food if we couldn't talk about it from the point of view of a variety of cultures."

Nnamdi and team's approach to food has captured the attention of not only the Beard Foundation but also the competition. Sally Swift, co-founder and managing producer of "The Splendid Table" on American Public Media, lost the Beard award last year to Nnamdi's show. She says she has no hard feelings. She even wrote a letter to Nnamdi and his producers, saying that if "The Splendid Table" had to lose to anyone, she was glad it was them.

"I love the idea that he's doing this locally. It's an important part of the community," says Swift, who has won two Beard awards herself with "The Splendid Table." "He's exuberant about eating, which is the important thing. . . . He is so honestly interested. It totally works."

For his own part, Nnamdi says he never expected to win a Beard award so soon after embracing food. "We were shocked," he says. "We were shocked because we know exactly how important, how big and how influential the James Beard award is, and we thought we had little or no chance of actually winning one."

Nnamdi's expectations apparently were so low that he didn't bother to make the trip to New York for the ceremony. He was, in fact, not even in the country. He was in the Caribbean watching cricket matches. Sensitive to the fact that his no-show might be interpreted as a snub, just another case of a hard-core news guy looking down his nose at soft-core foodies, Nnamdi is quick to explain his absence. He says producer Sweeney represented "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" in the host's place; Sweeney deserved the honor, Nnamdi notes, because the producer shepherded those early food programs.

"I got a bee in my bonnet about how much recognition hosts get and how little recognition producers get, and I thought it was fitting that the people who really make this thing work" should get the public recognition, he says.

Even so, the host adds, he was still torn about whether to attend the Beard ceremony himself.

"Let me put it this way," says Nnamdi. "I came pretty close to canceling the thing that is dearest to my heart, and that's my reservations and tickets for cricket in the Caribbean. That is a yearly pilgrimage that I make that is comparable to the pilgrimage that Muslims make to Mecca every year."

© 2011 The Washington Post Company