The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He’s ready for his ‘Top Chef’ spotlight. And he wants to use it to talk about African food.

Eric Adjepong is on the new season of “Top Chef” and was named to People Magazine’s list of the nation’s sexiest chefs. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Participate in a thought experiment for a second: What if your life were as good as Eric Adjepong’s? You’d be a chef who was plucked for the latest season of “Top Chef,” potentially on the verge of becoming famous. You’d have a catering business and the confidence that, after a national platform like the Bravo show, investors and a restaurant were sure to follow. You’d have a clever and gorgeous wife who gave birth two months ago to a beautiful daughter, whose good looks are not a genetic anomaly because — as if all of this weren’t enough — you, yourself, are so good-looking that you were named to People magazine’s list of the sexiest chefs in America.

It’s a tidal wave of hard work culminating in good fortune, the kind of when-it-rains-it-pours year that can send the unprepared into a tailspin, or bring out their baser characteristics. But if your life were as good as Eric Adjepong’s, you’d be gracious and grateful and calm under pressure, even as you’re still getting used to catching the eye of every single person as you walk into the room, still getting comfortable with the photos of you that people want to take, which is just what’s happening on this day in a sleek catering kitchen in a Southwest Washington luxury apartment building. He is instructed to cross his arms.

“This is the kind of coaching I need,” says Adjepong, 31, whose self-deprecation is sincere, even though he is the kind of handsome that produces good photos regardless of where one’s arms are placed. He probably doesn’t know that yet, because here’s the thing: Eric Adjepong is the kind of person whose life seems so perfect you’d want to hate him, but because he’s so charming, you never could.

Fame and success are not a given when you’re a first-generation Ghanaian American kid growing up in the Bronx. And it would be a profile cliche to say nothing was handed to him. It also isn’t true: Adjepong (pronounced add-juh-pong) can’t take credit for the Ashanti genes that produced his good looks. So let’s begin with those: They’re the product of his father, Benjamin Adjepong, and his mother, Abena Agyeman, who immigrated to New York in 1984.

He and his three siblings, like so many first-generation Americans, grew up in between cultures. “Going to school with food that was smelly — you know kids, they caught on to it,” he said.

But it was food — American, Ghanaian, all of it — that has fascinated Adjepong since he was 6. “I would watch Power Rangers and watch Julia Child right after that,” he said.

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When Adjepong was young, his mother said, “He looked at me and said, ‘Poor Mommy, always standing in the kitchen,’ ” and soon after that, he became her shadow. Her jollof rice was the first real recipe he learned.

“She taught me a lot of the basics,” he said. “And I find myself going to her even now, quite often, asking her questions.”

Adjepong’s father worked 12-hour days as a taxi driver. One day in 2004, when Adjepong was a senior in high school, his father found $6,500 in his cab, and when he couldn’t find the owner, he gave the bag to police. “That’s what you’re supposed to do,” he told the New York Post.

“It’s just the way that Africans and Ghanaians are raised,” Adjepong said. “Be honest, have integrity. Be truthful, and good things will come your way.”

Weeks later, just as he was planning to enroll in Johnson and Wales University’s culinary program, Adjepong found out his father had advanced stomach cancer. He died two months after he found the money. His loss made Adjepong think about “the type of man I want to be,” he said.

After culinary school and a few years in New York kitchens, Adjepong was offered a job at Bryan Voltaggio’s Frederick, Md., restaurant, Volt. At the same time, a cousin in London beckoned: Come live abroad for grad school. It was a pivotal moment, the choice between working for “a chef that I admire, or going off and learning a little bit more about myself and the culture that I come from,” Adjepong said. He enrolled in the University of Westminster, earning a master’s degree in international public health and taking in the vibrant African expat culture of London. It’s also where he got his tattoos — a sleeve of culinary herbs including rosemary, mint, basil, parsley and sage.

His thesis took him back to Ghana, where he wrote a 60-page study of the Maggi Cube, a Nestle-made beef bouillon cube that is frequently used in Ghanaian cooking — but can also contribute to the risk of hypertension and cardiovascular disease.

His return to the United States stirred up feelings about his place in the world.

“Growing up the way that I grew up, we had a very African-centric focus,” he said. “It was not until late high school and throughout college that I really understood and really had a yearning to know about slavery, about the Jim Crow era.”

That’s the duality of being a child of recent African immigrants. The inherited trauma of slavery isn’t a part of Adjepong’s family history, but because he is a black man in America, he bears it nonetheless.

“If I walk around on the street, someone wouldn’t recognize me as Eric the African,” he said. “They would say Eric the black man. So that’s something that I automatically have to attach to.”

If he hadn’t met Janell Mack, Adjepong may have never ended up on TV. The chef and the interior designer fell in love and quickly fell into a business partnership, too.

“She had asked me to do a brunch party for her girlfriends,” he said. “I was prepping, and I saw her table, which was completely decked out in flowers.” Almost simultaneously, they realized: This could be a business. After they were profiled by Black Enterprise, their catering business, Pinch & Plate, took off.

The two were married last year in a Philadelphia ceremony so elegant it was featured in Essence magazine, and she took his name. Just before, Janell had secretly submitted an application for Adjepong to be on “Chopped.” He came in second. A turn on “Beat Bobby Flay” was next, but Adjepong didn’t advance to the titular round.

“He just wants to cook, but I see so much more in him,” Janell said. “I was willing to do whatever I needed to do to help him get to that level.”

The couple, who live in Columbia, Md., are relative newcomers to the area. He found a job as a sous-chef opening the restaurant Kith and Kin, founded by another Bronx-raised “Top Chef” contestant with African roots: Kwame Onwuachi.

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The pair had “this connection that’s not very common in our industry,” said Onwuachi, who recommended Adjepong for the show. He prepped him for the taping and for how the show will change his life, his next steps, “but that means you have to work even harder because people expect a lot more from you.”

The Idris Elba of the Washington food scene doesn’t get a ton of screen time in the first episode of this “Top Chef” season, which premieres Dec. 6. In the main challenge. Adjepong shows off his West African roots, making a scallop dish with Ghanaian shito honey glaze. Later in the season, his life comes full-circle: Adjepong says he used Maggi cubes in a dish for the show. The hardest thing about “Top Chef,” he said, was that he wanted to showcase West African food, but he “knew finding and sourcing those ingredients all the time would be difficult.”

He can’t say much else. So for now, he’s waiting: to see how he’ll be portrayed, to see what the public thinks, to see what happens next. First, he’ll launch Pinch & Plate pop-up dinners, starting in December. But it’s no secret that a good run on “Top Chef” all but guarantees investors eager to finance a first restaurant. Adjepong knows exactly what his will be.

Guests would be “starting off in one port in Africa and veering off” to other destinations of the diaspora caused by the slave trade. The menu would serve West African food, as well as South American, Latin American and American dishes influenced by West African traditions. There would be dishes like his scallop yassa, a fine-dining take on a classic Senegalese dish, with black rice, squash and a palm wine-butter sauce, plated to look like a piece of jewelry. It would be elegant but not stuffy, and educational and political without being preachy.

“I think it’s an agitation that the food scene needs,” he said.

Because here’s what it all amounts to: People are going to pay attention to Eric Adjepong if he does well on “Top Chef,” especially because he’s People magazine-level attractive. But that’s not why he wants to do it.

TV “gives me a soapbox to really yell as loud as I can about African food, and do it in a really impactful way,” he said. The point, for him, is for Ghanaian food to be the next French, Italian or Japanese.

But, okay, he’ll take the compliment.

“It’s my mom and dad’s work,” he said.

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