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Top Chef’s Eric Adjepong on Life and the Lessons that Carried Him Through Top Chef

Top Chef’s Eric Adjepong on Life and the Lessons that Carried Him Through Top Chef

Chef Spotlight, Top Chef, Washington D.C.

WARNING: Top Chef Season 16 Spoilers Ahead

On television, he has just reached the finals of Top Chef season 16. In real life, Eric Adjepong is running events through a mobile dining service with his wife Janelle and learning how to be a father for the first time. It’s been quite the year for one of People’s Sexiest Chef.

Eric and Janell Adjepong with their daughter Lennox

His voice is warm and jovial on the phone. “An event got canceled so I’m folding laundry,” he chuckles. I imagine him cradling the phone between his ear and shoulder, his tall frame folding over a pile of clean clothes while a wide-eyed bouncing baby girl with curly locks looks on, giggling.

“There’s so much kinetic energy at one time,” Adjepong says of this whirlwind of a year. Few know that Adjepong had originally auditioned for Top Chef season 15—and made it to the tertiary round. Ultimately, it didn’t work because the first day of shooting was scheduled for the same day as his wedding.

“We tried everything,” he laughs. “We even tried to have them shoot at the wedding!” After much back and forth, Adjepong decided to bow out from auditioning further and kept his wedding as is. [Good thing, because it was absolutely STUNNING.]

Eric & Janell Adjepong

“It was one bullet I had to bite but everything works out for the better,” he continues. “I am so happy and proud to be on this season. Definitely happy with the way everything transpired in the meantime.”

On Staying True to Who You Are on Top Chef

Adjepong’s outlook on life—and on competing on Top Chef—is one of consistent hard work but also acceptance.

“I’ll be honest—I knew going into it that it was going to be really hard. I couldn’t fool myself. I was relinquishing control on a lot of things. I had to walk in with this really deep, almost religious understanding of that, which made life a lot easier for me.” He pauses, gathering his thoughts, and then continues. “Once you have this idea that you don’t have the power to do something, you accept it. You pivot for something to work out in your benefit. I knew mentally I needed to keep my mind sharp. Not get frustrated. Be a good person. Control the things I can control. It is what it is.”

Adjepong’s food is a celebration of his Ghanaian roots. Throughout the season, he has unabashedly cooked his food. It’s a humble yet powerful statement, just like the flavors he’s been serving up all season. To create authentic dishes from his youth when shopping primarily at places like Whole Foods is no easy task.

“Obviously, landscape and location-wise, we’re not in Africa. Right off the bat you know you’re not going to get things. There’s always going to be some curve to the palate. I try to hone in on pairing an American palate with a West African palate. With the stuff I’ve created for Pinch and Plate and for Kith and Kin, we’ve been able to create something new but authentic. Whether it’s Jallof rice that you pair with a halibut…I’m constantly developing while trying to stay true to the flavors.”

Eric Adjepong on Top Chef

When Adjepong’s fufu dumplings with Congolese red sauce were named the winner of “The Greatest” Mohammad Ali challenge, Adjepong exlaims, “For fufu!” in shock, then falls to his knees with his head in his hands and tears in his eyes. “Fufu was all that I ate as a kid. I would suck down fufu!” he tells me. Years later, Tom Colicchio, Nilou Motamed, and Padma Lakshmi praised him for the same.

“It’s a very meaningful win,” he chokes out. “Not only for me, but for my family. Despite what may happen to me the rest of this competition, it’s something that I won’t forget for the rest of my life—ever.”

On His Immigrant Childhood in the Bronx

Born in New York, Adjepong moved to Ghana when he was two years old and then back again to New York around the age of four. He grew up in the Bronx as a first-generation immigrant. “My dad drove a taxi for 12 hours. My mom worked as a nurse.” His aunt and uncle, too, had migrated over. “It was like a package unit,” he sounds his booming laugh.

“My mom and her older sister grew up in a household where they cooked a lot. My uncle cooked a lot as well. He worked at the Regal Royal Hotel for a very long time before it closed down, so he was familiar with kitchens and running a decent service. Hearing his stories every night, or watching him cook a weekend meal, was something inspiring.”

Adjepong spent a lot of his childhood watching PBS cooking shows (in between watching Animaniacs, of course). When in school, his conversations with the guidance counselor always circled back to culinary.

“I always admired how everybody would come together for a meal. No matter what room you were in, or if you were washing the car, around 7 o’clock you’d come together over something you created and everyone became a family around it.”

While he did have dreams of becoming a pro football or basketball player, he ultimately enrolled in his high school’s vocational program with a concentration on cooking and never looked back. “I fell in love and it was a go from there.”

On Giving Up the Stage of a Lifetime to Better Other Communities

Adjepong’s father passed away the year that he applied and got into famed Johnson & Wales. “I stayed back and went to public school for a year. Got more money via grants and scholarships, then transferred to J&W my sophomore year. Rhode Island was great as far as my social skills went but also academically,” he continues. “I grew a lot as a person.”

Adjepong’s interest in the culinary arts pushed beyond learning how to be a great chef. “I wanted to dive deeper into public health and nutrition,” he explains. “I wanted to use food to better the communities that I lived in…and communities that looked like me.”

His yen for this was so strong that he turned down a stage at Volt—Top Chef and Top Chef Master’s alum Bryan Voltaggio’s critically acclaimed restaurant—to go to London and pursue a master’s degree in Public Health Nutrition.

Chef Eric Adjepong

Of course, he later did work for Voltaggio who is now recognized as one of Adjepong’s greatest mentors. “Season six is what inspired me,” Adjepong refers to Voltaggio’s unforgettable Top Chef performance.

On Taking West Africa from New York to Washington D.C.

Another Top Chef alum who also played a major role in Adjepong’s career is Chef Kwame Onwuachi, of Washington D.C.’s Kith and Kin. Adjepong and Onwuachi both grew up in the Bronx. “We have a lot of mutual friends. My two best friends went to school with Kwame and would tell me about this chef from the Bronx who was cooking. I thought, man, this sounds like me!”

Adjepong reached out when he heard about Onwuachi opening a new Afro-Caribbean restaurant in D.C. “It was gravy from there. We had a meeting and automatically knew this was it.”

A Final Word

“I always got from my mom that they worked very hard to get here and to put me in a position to do well. To flourish.”

Eric Adjepong with his mother

Adjepong takes a moment.

“To start a new life in a new place can be scary. I can’t imagine that in my mother’s wildest dreams she would have ever thought her son would be on Top Chef. But that’s the type of drive and push that you see from a lot of first generation immigrant kids. Whatever you want to do, just go ahead and grab it. Don’t waste it. Take pride in it. For myself and my siblings, that’s something we cherish and try to honor vigorously.”

1 Comment

  1. Jenn
    March 5, 2019 at 6:17 pm
    Reply

    Very uplifting and inspiring, thank you for capturing Adjepong’s story!

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