The Value of Creating a Space Between
London’s Zoe Adjonyoh on what it means to cook your truth.
April 14, 2018 ● 5 min read
By Cassandra Landry | Original photo by Oliver Ajkovic, photo illustration by ChefsFeed
In the middle of a sentence, Zoe Adjonyoh’s voice goes all muffly.
It could be the connection—our call stretches between a kitchen in London and an office in San Francisco—but no, she’s just being fed testers of plantain waffle. “Hang on!” she says, and leans away from the phone. This round is too doughy, she tells someone on her end, and not sweet enough.
Adjonyoh, who speaks in an energetic, generous tumble of words, began her culinary career on a sidewalk. It was 2010, the weekend of a roaming local arts festival, and Londoners and tourists alike were out in force. The food gods, catching a whiff of something like destiny, sent Adjonyoh out into the action with a two-ring tabletop stove.
Before long, sizzling plantains and the smell of peanut butter stew laced with scotch bonnets drew a curious flow of customers. In the span of a weekend, Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen (“It’s Ghana Be Tasty!”) had burst into existence.
The festival took notice, and by the next year, Adjonyoh had her own stall. She officially had a modest fan base, and their happy demands led first to a series of supper clubs (usually full of third-generation Ghanaians and white hipster kids, she says), then to kitchen residencies in major cities, and a pop-up space back home in Brixton.
Then, last year, she published a book; and last month, she and her team opened shop at The Institute of Light—which brings us back to those plantain waffles.
The notion of comfort food may be so played out as to barely register now, but the spirit of the genre still serves to reminds us how similar our cravings across the globe really are—how boundless the appeal of a waffle, or a kebab, or a fried fish you can tear into with your fingers. While places like the neighboring Ikoyi reimagine West African ingredients from a stylish contemporary angle, Adjonyoh’s interpretation are relaxed, playful riffs on the familiar. Both approaches have a role to play in defining the new culinary lexicon.
“When I started, I was worried that Ghanaians would feel that I was appropriating their culture, even as a half Ghanaian,” she admits. “But this food is for everyone; it shouldn’t be intimidating. I’m trying to break down barriers—that’s how you reach the tipping point of understanding.”
There’s no end to the list of things Adjonyoh has learned in the last eight years; her almost accidental entry into the industry (evidence that magical serendipity still churns under the jaded surface of this business) meant an all-encompassing education in managing others, in organization and trust, and in exploring her own legacy as the daughter of a Ghanaian father and an Irish mother.
Within that first year, she struggled to establish the line between ambassador and chef for her audience. How authentic did things need to be? What counted as a faithful homage, and what could be freer, driven by the energy of modern London and her own style?
The answer, as anyone who has wrestled this particular question knows, is always that ancient adage: you do you. The only way to stay sane in this industry is to cook what you love for total strangers, and hope it shows them something about themselves in the process.
Courtesy Zoe's Ghana Kitchen
“African countries have a different contextual history when it comes to food,” she points out. “It’s food that’s made for the community who missed their home. There was never a notion to entertain white people in those spaces. It was a different dining experience. I’m trying to bridge that gap, saying: here’s a space in between.”
That space has made her somewhat of a figurehead in the community; a culinary guide to a handful of countries she’s still learning about.
At a recent event, she found herself in a room with the coiffed elites of the British food industry. There she was, she says, little old Zoe from Southeast London, not a trained chef but holding her own just the same, cookbook in hand and inbox full of press inquiries. It was humbling, and she was nervous, and she said so to someone nearby.
Enjoy it while it lasts, they said.
They may as well have thrown a gauntlet. If Adjonyoh’s fueled by anything, it’s a dumbass comment like that.
“This isn't a trend,” she says. “Treating it as a trend dismisses what's happening, by boxing it in as something cool and hip—for now. People have been cooking African food in this country for many, many years. It's just that you've only just woken up to the fact that it's good.”
So how do you educate and inspire and inform without being too reductive, or too pretentious?
With consistency. “You have to keep having the conversations, so that it stops becoming ‘other,’” she says. “You can’t really sum up the food of a whole continent. And there are always going to be purists in any cuisine. But then there’s everybody else, who’s up for adventure and exploration. The key is accessibility.”
Her food, the vibrancy of it, allows it to carry a dual purpose: a meal can be enjoyed on its own with no thought to the grander narrative, but it can also change your perception if you choose to consider its place in modern cuisine. That’s the point of all good food, isn’t it? That it serves both our surface and our depth?
“If I’m a standard bearer for anything, it’s enjoyment in food,” Adjonyoh says of the attention. “But what I cook is a very personal approach. I called it Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen because I wanted to be very clear that it was my interpretation.”
“I used to tell a very polite narrative for six or seven years, but I’ve gotten a little more political,” she continues. “I want people to engage with these flavors, but all of these big issues affect even the smallest moments. They’re all worth discussing.”
The irony of our endless quest for authenticity is that what we base it on doesn’t actually exist. “When I was in this super small port in Gambia this January, I was on a quest for jollof rice and I couldn’t find any!” she says. “People in the diaspora are focusing on where they came from, and people there are focusing on Western food. They aren’t necessarily looking inward.”
We emulate an idea of those who are busy emulating an idea of someone else, and around and around we go. A space between, one that is true to an individual, lives outside of the lines of who can and should cook what. Authenticity is not a theory that can be proven—it’s an action that can be felt.
“The wonderful thing about food is that it can be so many things,” she says. The sounds of prep in her kitchen have gotten steadily louder; the magnetic pull of her tasks is an almost audible hum on the line. “There are lots of gray areas, like anything in life, but it can about eating, or cooking, or it can be a conversation about gender, or representation, or racism. It can be so many things. And it should be.”
Adjonyoh is one of more than 80 global chefs, journalists, food experts, trend spotters, and industry leaders presenting at The Culinary Institute of America’s 20th Anniversary Worlds of Flavor International Conference and Festival, April 18-20, 2018. At this year’s conference, “Legends of Flavor,” we will look back over the past 20 years and help predict what we’ll be craving 1, 5, 10, and 20 years from now. For more information or to register, visit www.worldsofflavor.com.