The dish that could have won “Top Chef” for Eric Adjepong was one he never had the chance to make. It’s a dessert: a goat milk and corn pudding with sorrel gel, hibiscus tapioca, chocolate crumble and a blackberry lavender sorbet. Velvety, crunchy, sweet, bitter and sour. Like the rest of the meal that the judges never got to taste, every bite contains the history of slavery. The ingredients are African, Caribbean and American, reflecting both Adjepong’s Ghanaian roots and the ugly history that brought our country some of its most beloved culinary traditions.
“The gel that I use, this right here — the drink is nationally called, in Ghana, sobolo. In Nigeria, it’s called zobo. And then, in the Caribbean, they call it sorrel,” Adjepong said last week during a visit to The Washington Post Food Lab. “It’s all the same. So [I’m] just telling that story.”
There’s never been anyone on “Top Chef” quite like Adjepong, and that’s the problem, really. He was the first contestant to focus intensely on West African food, and he impressed the judges week after week with flavors and dishes they don’t usually see on the show. But at times, it seemed that Adjepong’s cooking was outside their frame of reference.
And then there’s the poetic injustice of how it ended. Adjepong made it to the finale, where he competed against two other chefs: Kelsey Barnard Clark of Dothan, Ala., and Sara Bradley of Paducah, Ky. He had performed better than both women, going into the episode with the most wins and the fewest times his dish ranked in the bottom throughout the season (and he made everything from scratch — Bradley, controversially, used boxed waffle mix in one challenge).
Adjepong announced at the beginning of the finale that his meal would “tell the story of the transatlantic slave trade and how those flavors migrated to the South.” The other two contestants, both white women, cooked the Southern food of their childhood. But there would be no Southern food without African food, because early Southern food was cooked by enslaved Africans. Cornbread, a component of Barnard Clark’s dish, is a descendant of breads and cakes that slaves made with their meager rations of cornmeal. As if to underscore the theme, the finale was filmed in Macau, an administrative region of China that was, until 20 years ago, a colony of Portugal.
“The food that I was cooking is so severely underrepresented, anyway, that a lot of people don’t really understand where that food actually comes from and how important it is to certain people,” Adjepong said. So when he was eliminated after his first course — he and his team had burned the lotus-root chips that topped his jerk-spiced tartare, and judges said they felt he used too many ingredients — it cut deeper than any other elimination this season. Barnard Clark went on to win.
“There’s definitely an irony to it all, watching them cook their meal,” he said of Bradley and Barnard Clark. Watching himself on the show was “like having an out-of-body experience.”
Though Adjepong’s execution fell short, he was doing something far more intellectually ambitious and confrontational than anyone else on the show — and, once the judges told him to pack his knives, fans lamented that they would never be able to see the rest of his meal.
Until now. The D.C.-based chef visited The Post last week to cook the final three courses of the dinner he never got to make on the show. His second course was a lobster tail with yassa onion jam, puffed black rice and palm wine nage; his third was pan-seared scallops and braised goat with tamarind glaze, a cassava pave and piri piri jus; and he ended the meal with his aforementioned goat milk and corn pudding dessert.
A few notes on the components of these dishes: In Macau, Adjepong had planned to serve Mantis shrimp, but lobster was easier to source here. Yassa is a Senegalese dish of protein stewed in spices and onions. A nage is a white wine broth for poaching seafood, but Adjepong used palm wine, found throughout central Africa, instead. Goat is a more common ingredient in West Africa than beef, and piri piri is a dish born of colonialism: The dish is credited to the Portuguese, but its peppery kick comes from ingredients colonizers brought back from Angola and Mozambique. A pave (pa-vay) is a Thomas Keller technique for making a dish similar to scalloped potatoes, with thin, mandolin-sliced layers pressed together, except in this dish, Adjepong uses cassava, a tuber that is also called yuca. Nigeria produces the most cassava in the world. And sorrel, in the dessert, is a fruity and perfumey West African hibiscus tea.
The dishes were elegantly plated and beautifully executed, outside the pressure-cooker environment of the show, and full of contrasts in flavor and texture. Had all three contestants been able to present their full menus, “I think it would have been a different story,” Adjepong said, “But the chips fell the way they fell.”
“Top Chef,” like many reality shows, could be more diverse. There has never been a recurring black judge on the show, and only one winner: Season 7’s Kevin Sbraga is black. Adjepong struggled with the judges’ occasional lapses in understanding of his cooking, such as when they told him his egusi stew had a “gritty texture” (there are a variety of acceptable textures for the dish, which varies regionally and includes ground egusi seeds).
“Africa is the second-biggest continent in the world, and yet, why don’t we have any sort of understanding of these flavor profiles and what the food is?” Adjepong said. “It’s kind of a heavy crown to wear because it’s like, you want to be able to represent it and cook the food that you are so accustomed to eating and know so well, but you’re also educating at the same time you’re competing.”
Fans criticized the judges’ lack of cultural fluency earlier in the season, when co-host Padma Lakshmi was chastised for wearing cornrows and a white “wife-beater” tank top to an episode filmed at the University of Kentucky’s basketball arena. But Adjepong was reluctant to call her attire out: “I was in competition mode, so I wasn’t really concerned about anybody’s hair.”
He hopes that future seasons will bring “a voice or insight that is more global and can speak to flavors that aren’t as familiar.” But he won’t go as far as calling for new judges.
For now, Adjepong continues to cater private dinners and host pop-ups for Pinch & Plate, the company he runs with his wife, Janell. The series is sold out, but he’s planning two more dinners, on June 10 and July 15 — and he also has a May 13 pop-up planned in New York, at Craft, “Top Chef” judge Tom Colicchio’s restaurant. Some dishes from Adjepong’s would-be finale meal may make an appearance on those menus. He’ll make tickets available via his website.
A Washington restaurant will follow in 2020 — though plans are very preliminary, and Adjepong can’t reveal many details yet. “Being patient is the number one thing for me,” he said. Some of his investors are African American, and when it comes to his concept, “they feel it on a cultural level, as well.” There will be a special area of the restaurant that will offer a tasting menu, but he plans to keep prices accessible.
That will perhaps help him avoid a pitfall of another local “Top Chef” contestant, Kith and Kin chef Kwame Onwuachi, whose first restaurant, the Shaw Bijou, was criticized for its expensive tasting menu. (Before his turn on “Top Chef,” Adjepong worked at Kith and Kin.) “I’m not going to come to the city and stake out a price point,” Adjepong, a relative newcomer to Washington, said. “I’ll keep it approachable.”
And even though the subject matter will be heavy, the restaurant will still be joyful. “I think the food that I can present is really going to tell the story in a way that’s approachable, in a way that’s educational, but also in a way that’s tasty,” he said. And if the “Top Chef” judges want to experience the meal they missed, they can just come to his restaurant: All of these dishes will be on the menu.
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