Have you ever met someone who has “it”?
“It,” in this case, is the X factor that Simon Cowell says all celebrities need to have. People talk about having “it,” dream about being “it,” and make TV shows about finding people with “it.”
Chef Eric Adjepong (pronounced ad-juh-pong) oozes “it.” He’s one of those people who shifts energies when he enters a room.
He was named one of People’s Magazine’s 10 sexiest chefs last year. He’s been a contestant on Chopped and Beat Bobby Flay. He was also a contestant during season 16 of Top Chef, making it into the final three before facing elimination. When my wife, Tracie, found out that I interviewed Adjepong for this column, she yelled out, “Oh my God, he was robbed!”
That’s evidence that Adjepong has “it.” Having “it” can make people who don’t know you feel connected to you in a personal way. When you have “it,” being “robbed” on a TV show can be a good thing: The outpouring of empathy, and the outrage sparked by Adjepong’s controversial elimination, led to him becoming known as “The People’s Champ.” Since the elimination, numerous magazines, newspapers, and websites have featured him.
He has also hung out with celebrities, sports stars, and other chefs, all while on his way to becoming a well-known celebrity chef himself. It’s kind of poetic that he has an upcoming event in New York with Top Chef Judge Tom Colicchio, where he will get to showcase his meal telling the story of the transatlantic slave trade through food—a meal similar to the one he was preparing when he got booted off Top Chef.
Adjepong is good peoples, and the effects of a good meal, prepared by a good person, can last a lifetime. He expresses his Ghanaian heritage through the meals that he cooks. During his run on Top Chef he made a bevy of West African-themed dishes with the hope that those flavors become premiere flavors in the culinary world, just like their French and Italian counterparts. And he’s right to do so. Truth is, once you’ve had a bowl of jollof rice, no other rice will do.
Adjepong is originally from the birthplace of hip-hop, the Bronx. He’s a first generation American whose family moved from Ghana to America in the late 1980s. Growing up in a Ghanaian household in the Bronx with hip-hop all around him has definitely influenced the way that he “thinks about food and flavor,” and how he shares those flavors with the masses. He speaks in hip-hop terms when talks about sharing different stories through food, saying “each one, teach one.”
After studying in New York, Adjepong traveled to London to complete further study, receiving a Masters of Public Health in international public health nutrition from the University of Westminster. He now lives in Columbia, Maryland, with his wife Janell and their family. They’ve recently added a baby girl, Lennox, to their mix. The two also own and operate Pinch and Plate, a full service dining experience that they will bring to you.
Adjepong is cool about having “it,” which made him all the more fun interview.
Chef Eric, what’s good?! Better yet, Eti sen (a Ghanaian greeting). How is your jollof rice?!
[laughs] Ey-yeh … That’s the callback [to “Eti sen”]. It’s good, man! It’s not better than my mom’s, but it’s up there. My mom had my jollof and was like, “ehh, it’s pretty good; it’s not too bad.” [laughs]
Good, I gotta have some, Chef. You’re having an amazing year. Is it safe to say that you’re living your best life!?
Yeah things are pretty cool. I’m working in my purpose and in my faith as much as possible—sticking to my lane and minding my business. [laughs]
What’s good to you about being a “Top Chef” in D.C.?
You know, what’s really dope is the love that D.C. has for the folks that come out of the city. Man, it’s palpable. I want to take some time just to say “Thank you,” man. Me coming out here about two and a half years ago, I knew a few people. My wife knew the bulk of the people. She went to Howard, she went to GW. So she’s D.C. through-and-through. So when I came out here and really started putting out classes in culinary, and then when I got word that I would be onTop Chef, the amount of support and adulation from everyone here in the city has been tremendous. So I got nothing but love for D.C., man, and the greater area—the DMV and everything. You guys really go hard for your hometown. I think the folks in D.C. really kind of gave me that umph to really say, “Yo, do your thing, man, we support you, we got your back and we ride for you.” I think that right there gave me the huge amount of confidence that I needed to really, you know, do the things that I did with Top Chef, you know what I mean? D.C. definitely gives you that confidence and that battery, man, like, “Do your thing, we got your back.”
What do you enjoy most about cooking?
I think ultimately what I enjoy most about cooking is the communal aspect—getting folks together and having them sit around a table and break bread, drink wine, whatever the case is, just really enjoying themselves over a meal. I think bringing that together—it can be strangers, it could be folks that have known each other forever, still you share that one moment of eating together. To be someone who helps provide that, I think is dope. I think that so much happens over a great meal. Business gets done, love gets done, work gets done.
What’s good about watching people eat your food?
It’s super narcissistic [laughs]. Seriously though, I enjoy the fact that people are enjoying what I’m making.
You put your blood, sweat, and tears into a dish. It can take 8 hours to make and almost 15 minutes to eat. That’s the type of love and support that you get from the folks that really nourish you. You know what I mean? Nourishment is a huge deal, and people kind of take that for granted. Like you could sit down, and be satiated from the meal and feel good and feel ready for the next task. As a chef, that’s a huge accomplishment, to kind of aid that part of your day is big. Also, I love to eat [laughs] and I love to be cooked for, so if you can cook for me you have a key to my heart. I love to break bread with the folks that I cook for.
You and your partner, Janell, own Pinch and Plate. What’s good about sharing your success with your partner?
Man, I think the best part about it is that we keep everything separate [laughs]. She has her own part of the business, I do as well. And we respect each other’s boundaries. I think that right there, mutual respect, creates a great space for creativity, creates a great space for synergy. If she has an idea, or if I have an idea we can go to each other, relay and express it. I know at the end of the day that she’s coming from a really great place. She is my wife. She’s not gonna sugarcoat anything. She’s not gonna play it up or whatever. She’s gonna tell me as real as it is. That kind of unfiltered rawness is necessary.
That’s awesome. What you said reminds me of an African proverb about marriages and partnerships. It says, “I bring what I bring to the relationship, you bring what you bring to the relationship, and together we’ll have more.” Kind of saying that while we come together as individuals, we’ll move forward together as a unit—keep our individuality, which helps create our duality, or family.
That’s beautiful, and that’s how you multiply. Essentially you trust her heart because you trusted yourself to be able to trust her, with yours.
Let’s talk a little bit about your background. You’re a first generation American, your family is from Ghana. What was good about being an African, growing up in America?
I had the great experience of that duality you spoke about earlier. You know, my folks came directly from Ghana in the late ’80s and had me, so there wasn’t much space for them to assimilate into the American culture. I grew up in a Ghanaian household. It was as Ghanaian as it gets, only I wasn’t in Ghana [laughs]. If you were just in my house, you would have never known the difference. You know what I mean? So to kind of bring all those flavors and things that I grew up eating second hand, and you know, explore that and kind of cook that for the masses and have them experience flavors and profiles that they’d never been used to, or experienced before, man, that’s pretty dope to kind of be the one to showcase all of that. So I definitely think there’s been a heavy influence in the way that I think about food, the way I think about flavor.
Thank you for sitting down with me, Chef. I know that you’re a very busy man. What’s good coming up that you can share with the people?
A few pop-ups coming. I did a few before with Cork Wine Bar over on 14th Street, so we’re going to be continuing that with a few more dates in June and July.
I’m definitely looking toward a brick-and-mortar and getting a restaurant going within the next couple of years. That’s where my mind is at. Along with that, I’m just tryin’ to keep spreading that Gospel and keep cooking the food that I do.
Thanks for sharing, Chef. Thanks for sharing the comforts of your home, and bringing them into our home. One last question: What type of beard oil do you use?!
Ahhhh [laughs]. You caught me off guard with that one. Shea Butta! I know yo’ wife put you on to that!
Awesome! I’m using the same beauty tips as one of America’s sexiest chefs.
Follow Chef Eric Adjepong:
on Instagram: @ChefEricAdjepong
On Twitter: @ChefAdjepong