By Selassie Atadika | Photos courtesy of Midunu. photo illustration ChefsFeed

Turning Points catalogs the moments that define a culinary life—the choices that cut a particular path, and the interactions that change our perspective.

For Selassie Atadika, born in Ghana but raised in New York, those moments track the steely resolve of someone destined to move the needle on our understanding of African cuisine. She's now the chef of Accra’s nomadic dining concept, Midunu, where a meal might begin with a traditional presentation of eto (mashed plantain with palm oil) and end with coriander-laced kofi with ginger crème anglaise—or any one of her devastatingly beautiful chocolates, infused with spices from the far corners of the continent.

 


 

1. New York, November 1992

Just a few days before Thanksgiving in 1992, my mother had to head back to our home country. That left me in charge of Thanksgiving dinner. As an immigrant family, our table was a fusion of cultures; some of the American classics like mashed potatoes and stuffing, but also some of our Ghanaian classics such as tomato gravy and shito, a preserved black chili sauce. That year, in order to take some pressure off of her 16-year-old, my mom had decided to outsource the bird and stuffing.

Wednesday night rolled around, and I knocked out the pies: apple and pumpkin. Thursday, I got up early, same as I did every year with my mom, and set the table, prepared the side dishes then went to pick up the bird. It turns out my mom had decided to try something a bit different and ordered duck! I had to explain the presence of the duck on the table, but it wasn’t as bad as I had imagined. The family dug in and started to eat.  

My younger brother, who neither cooks nor had any interest in assisting in the preparation, took one forkful of the rice and tomato gravy and with a look of disgust, asks me, "What is this stuff?" I tell him it's gravy just like Mom makes. He puts his fork down and says, "No, it’s not." I was so upset that night, it took me a few months to recover enough to try my hand at any Ghanaian dishes. Much of our African culinary heritage was not written down: back home, when you ask for a recipe, you are told you use your eyes to measure. I wasn’t going to learn from any cookbook—I was going to have to spend more time in the kitchen observing and assisting my mother. As the eldest child in my family, I had a lot of responsibility to take the baton from my mother and honor our cuisine.

2. Kenya, May 2008

After almost five years in Africa as a humanitarian worker with the United Nations, I decided to work in a Francophone country. In preparation, I started taking French lessons, watching French TV programs and listening to music sung in French. In the course of my immersion, I fell in love with the music of Salif Keita, and his song Africa, in particular. He pays homage to the continent, how it makes you dream, live, dance and eat. He mentions the various countries, capitals, and leaders, then schools you on the food of the continent: fufu, ndole, yassa, foutu, mafe, atteike… I realized how much I didn’t know—but wanted to.

My culinary journey through the continent intensified as I turned 32. There are still a few dishes in that song that I haven’t had the pleasure to taste yet, but I still have time.

3. Central African Republic, April 2010

I decided to visit two of my friends who were working in the Central African Republic. It wasn’t your usual tourist destination, but that didn’t stop me—I had heard about their forest elephants, silverback gorillas, virgin rainforests and butterflies as far as the eye could see, so I tasked my friends with organizing a trip.

We set off on our two-day drive to the Dzanga-Sangha Forest Reserve. After a full day of driving, we stopped at the only lodge on the way and met one other guest, the French national who was running the lodge, and a French summer intern who had just arrived a few weeks earlier. After dinner, a few of us stayed up to chat around the campfire with a glass of whiskey. In the conversation, I heard the young intern deride ‘African cuisine.' I asked him where else he had been, besides the very isolated village. "Nowhere else."

I found myself trying to explain that he couldn’t generalize, with such limited experience in the continent. It would not be the first time I would find myself defending the cuisine to people who were not familiar with the flavor profiles, or the changes which foodways take in the face of political, social and economic crisis.

I decided to become an ambassador of African cuisine that night, and soon thereafter formalized my culinary skills at the Culinary Institute of America to better celebrate Africa’s culinary heritage.

Atadika 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.

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Edited for clarity.