Eric Adjepong (Ad-juh-pong) was recently a finalist on season 16 of Bravo’s Top Chef. His success on the show sparked a conversation about culinary representation at the highest level in America. He was also the runner-up Fan Favorite, and People magazine named him one of the top 10 sexiest chefs alive. He also happens to be a former member of the Territory team. Eric was our first city-level Quality Assurance Manager, a role created to support mine.
A few months ago, I pitched a partnership to Eric for a few reasons. First, I thought it’d be so cool to feature a celebrity chef on our menu. Second, it was my turn to support his role. Eric is on a mission to illuminate Africa’s contributions to our food system on a global level, and I have direct access to tens of thousands of people who order food from Territory’s menu every week. Third, I simply missed the good ol’ days of working alongside him because, as you’re about to read, he’s a pretty cool dude.
To say that Eric has a magnetic personality is rather understating it. He’s more like the sun, the way that he captivates everyone who crosses his path. I’ve thought a lot about what makes people feel so positive around Eric and it could be the way he genuinely makes you feel important. It could be that he remembers the tiniest details about your life and never forgets to ask about them, regardless of whether he’s just hopped off a red-eye or is jetting off to be filmed for a TV show that’s watched by millions.
For the interview, we met at Union Market, a popular food hall in DC. Eric had just returned from New York, where he’d been planning for an event at one of Tom Colicchio’s restaurants – his Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade themed dinner that he never got to cook on the Top Chef finale. He was soon off to Minnesota for the Final Four celebrity all-star game, and then on to Los Angeles for a Home & Family TV segment and a Bravo event for the Emmy’s.
He left our meeting for another big feature at Washington City Paper. He also owns a full-service dinner party company (Pinch & Plate) with his wife, and he is a new dad to an extraordinarily gorgeous child. The man has A LOT going on.
But when we saw each other, for the first time in 10 months, he broke into his huge smile, gave me one of his genuine bear hugs, and immediately gushed about a haircut I got recently. He walked a full circle around me, inspecting it from all angles and telling me how much he approved.
A slightly deeper dive into Eric’s background – he was a contestant on season 16 of Bravo’s Top Chef. He made it all the way to the final episode, ultimately finishing in third. What makes his Top Chef run so historic is that as a first generation Ghanaian-American, he took a huge risk with his unrelenting use of West African cuisine. He prepared things like fufu and egusi stew for judges who had little awareness of those flavor profiles. Eric won many of the challenges throughout the competition, proving that West African food belongs on the table and in the conversation.
Before competing on Top Chef, Eric helped fellow Top Chef contestant Kwame Onwuachi open Kith & Kin restaurant in DC. Just as he’s a magnet for people, he’s also a magnet for opportunity.
I sat down with Eric over coffees that we fought over who got to pay for the other, to hear more about his Top Chef experience, what it’s like to be a dad, and how he’s thinking about his next move.
FIRST OF ALL, IT’S SO GOOD TO SEE YOU. TWO YEARS AGO, I WAS INTERVIEWING YOU FOR THE QA MANAGER POSITION AT TERRITORY. NOW I’M INTERVIEWING YOU AS A CELEBRITY.
[Laughing] That’s so crazy, I am the fakest celebrity you’ll ever meet. But I am a very strong believer in people being inserted in your life at certain times, so I definitely appreciate that moment.
YOU TOLD ME ONCE THAT YOU YOUR MOTTO IS SIMPLY ‘DO GOOD IN THE WORLD AND EVENTUALLY IT ALL COMES BACK TO YOU’. DO YOU THINK THESE PAST COUPLE YEARS HAS BEEN AN EXAMPLE OF THAT?
That’s definitely my motto for sure. Just putting good stuff out in the world. I think that’s really important. You don’t necessarily need an audience or applause, you just have to do it. And those things that don’t get seen by others is what adds coins into the bank and that eventually pays out somehow.
GOING BACK TO HOW IT ALL STARTED – WAS THERE A MOMENT YOU KNEW YOU WANTED TO BE A CHEF?
Its two-fold. I think the moment I knew I wanted to be a chef was maybe around high school, when you’re talking to your guidance counselor about what you want to do. I knew that I loved food, but I really didn’t know much about culinary arts or what being a chef in a restaurant meant. I never had that experience, I just knew that I loved food a lot.
From a young age, maybe 6 or 7, I was just infatuated with cooking shows. I would watch those shows like Animaniacs and other cartoons. I would flip between Julia Child and anime, I was just weird like that. I always thought it was cool to make something that was inedible into something good. I started out by making boxed cakes and thought I was the man. Then I graduated into making my own cakes.
SO YOUR FIRST FORAY INTO FOOD WAS ACTUALLY BAKING. I LOVE TO BAKE, BUT IT DOES NOT TRANSLATE TO COOKING. WHAT’S YOUR BAKING HISTORY LIKE?
Yeah! I started baking a whole bunch, that was my first intro into cooking. That was the cheaper stuff – flour, milk, eggs. I didn’t have to go shopping because that stuff was already at the house.
Before I was making my own cakes, I would go with my mom or dad to the grocery store and pick up a cake mix and try to decorate it myself. I really thought I was doing something back in the day.
WHAT WAS YOUR FAVORITE COOKING SHOW BACK THEN?
Yan Can Cook. He seemed like he was just having a really good time teaching people how to cook. I was always captured by his personality and I thought the food that he was making was really cool, too.
NOW YOU ARE YAN.
Yeah, it’s so crazy that I’m that person now. It’s so nuts.
WHAT’S SOMETHING YOU WOULD TELL THE LITTLE KID VERSION OF YOURSELF WHO LOVES FOOD BUT DOESN’T KNOW EXACTLY WHAT THEY WANT TO DO?
Read a lot of books. I think that’s helpful. And just go for it, try it. And if you’re gonna do it, put 100% effort into it. And know that it’s not going to happen overnight.
In this day and age, and this makes me feel so much like the “get-off-my-lawn” old man, but peoples’ minds today are so fickle. News is news for like 7 seconds and then it’s not news anymore. If you’re doing something and you don’t see a reward or any positive result, people usually drop off. That’s just human nature. So, I would say stick with it. It sounds cliché and corny but, just stick with it and something will click eventually if you’re really into what you’re doing.
AND ALSO THAT YOUR PATH MAY NOT PREDICTABLE. HOW DID BEING A TERRITORY QA MANAGER PLAY A KEY ROLE IN YOUR JOURNEY?
One way was seeing food in a different angle. I am a nerd when it comes to every aspect of food – what it does to your body, public health, food science. I’d seen quality control before but not to that scale, so that was a very eye-opening experience for me. It helped me really understand that food can be made this way, at this volume, this efficiently. And how we could translate that to even a greater scale to feed a community or a region. It actually can be done. The efficiency at Territory and all the moving parts and cogs in the machine were really impressive for me to experience. It’s a startup that grew through a grass roots effort, it wasn’t applied. You guys made it, you worked the kinks out, and you keep working the kinks out because new kinks come up and you stick with it. Same thing we were just talking about.
RIGHT. IF YOU BELIEVE IN IT, YOU JUST DO IT UNTIL IT WORKS.
Until it works, legit, because if you believe in it, you have no choice.
WE HAVE TENS OF THOUSANDS OF CUSTOMERS ACROSS OUR CITIES NOW, ALL OF WHOM ARE GOING TO BE ABLE TO TRY YOUR FOOD. BEFORE THAT, YOU USED YOUR PLATFORM ON TOP CHEF WHICH HAS MILLIONS OF VIEWERS. WHAT’S NEXT FOR SHARING YOUR STORY?
I’m mulling over that myself. What’s the fastest, most impactful way to share that message while understanding that this moment is not essentially limited, because I control my destiny, but still striking the iron while it’s hot? Do I do something on TV? I’m still working to open a space myself and continue telling the story through that, but wider scale can it be done through a book? Different options to think about. It’s all overwhelming, but that’s pretty much what I have on my table to continue spreading that story.
WHAT WAS THE MOST SURPRISING THING ABOUT THE TOP CHEF EXPERIENCE?
Not knowing space and time. We didn’t have phones or contact with the outside world, we were just in a bubble. I don’t even know how to explain it. It was so, so weird. The strangest part is that the bubble co-existed with everyone else who is in the real world just living a normal day. You see people at the store, or on the streets on their phones and they don’t know about the filming bubble, they’re just living their everyday life. I had no idea about the news or current events, I missed the NBA playoffs, I was pissed about that.
Rude, right?! That was probably it. Not having any sense of control of the things we take for granted – like hearing about news, or contact with your family, or even what time it is. You know the sun goes down in Kentucky around 8pm, so you just try to base time off that. It messes with your head so much.
ARE YOU RECOVERED NOW?
I think I am. I think going to LA for the past couple days and doing the Bravo event and seeing Padma and wearing the chef coat again was kind of surreal. I thought somebody was going to pop up with a camera in my face like, “HAHA! gotcha!” I remember the first couple days after getting home and going to Whole Foods I was like holy sh**. It was weird.
SPEAKING OF YOUR HOMECOMING… THAT’S WHEN YOU BECAME A DAD TO BABY GIRL LENNOX. HOW HAS THAT CHANGED YOUR PERSPECTIVE?
I just had this conversation with [my wife] Janell. As a man and as a father, you don’t have any direct connection with the child until it’s here. The mother has a connection immediately. So, for me it’s really been 31 years of my life living as Eric. I have a family and a wife, but this new role of being a father – I’m only 7 months into. Its fresh! I barely know what I’m doing. But it’s good, it’s fun watching her grow and learn and understand our world and her world. I think it’s also taught us patience, like in trying to figure out why she’s crying. There are different cries for different reasons – that’s really true. I thought that was a fable, but she’ll cry a different cry if she’s hungry or tired or whatever. We’re getting a handle on that little bit of communication and I get the sense that she’s satisfied knowing that we understand her, too.
ARE YOU ENJOYING THIS AGE OR ARE YOU EAGER FOR HER TO START TALKING AND WALKING?
I’m enjoying everything. I’m not in a rush for anything. I’m in the moment and enjoying the moment as the days come, so I don’t want to rush anything about this.
OK, YOU’VE GOT 1000 OTHER THINGS TO GET DONE TODAY SO ONE LAST QUESTION. I’M BORROWING THIS ONE FROM THE HOW I BUILT THIS PODCAST BECAUSE I LOVE IT: HOW MUCH OF YOUR SUCCESS IS DUE TO SKILL AND HOW MUCH IS DUE TO LUCK?
Wow, that’s a really, really great question. There’s that quote, “the harder you work, the luckier you get.” And I think it’s hard work and tenacity that drives skill. You get better through practice. It’s how hard you work that directly correlates to your skill. The more you do something the more competitive you are at it, the faster you become, the more skills you get from it, and you’re becoming luckier because the opportunities come to you because people notice. So, the harder you work really correlates to how lucky you get. It’s an interesting question to answer.
RIGHT. NOBODY HAPPENED TO GET LUCKY WITHOUT HAVING THE SKILL.
There are anomalies on both sides but yeah, the lion’s share of it is work.
And for Eric, just putting good out into the universe so it can come back to him.
Chef Eric’s meal, Ghanaian-Style Chicken & Jollof Rice is now available for delivery for a limited time.