Although Top Chef recruits talent from across the U.S., we tend to see some of the same repeated culinary trends and dishes: early on it was molecular gastronomy, and later it was scallops (hence the quote "this isn't Top Scallops!"). But Top Chef Season 16 and 17 alum Eric Adjepong brought new creations to the table, as he was the first to compete making West African dishes.
This ultimately inspired more contestants to explore the depths of African cooking, and even inspired the show to honor the cuisine in its newest season. That's why Distractify was thrilled to be able to speak with Eric via Zoom on behalf of AYO Foods, to discuss the impact of his cooking on Top Chef, his undying adoration for West African cuisine, and the support he received from his fellow competitors. Needless to say, his cooking has seriously changed the game.
Eric is thrilled to share West African dishes on 'Top Chef' and through his partnership with AYO.
Eric is well-versed in the culinary arts — after growing up in the Bronx and earning a degree from Johnson & Wales, he went on to work in various Michelin star restaurants. Eventually, he landed a spot on Top Chef Season 16, where he made it to the final three with his drool-worthy West African-inspired creations. Although there were many things that set Eric apart from his fellow contestants, he happened to be one of the first to bring traditional African spices and dishes to the table.
"When I got on the show [in] Season 16, there hadn't been a chef to cook any food from the continent of Africa. And something I say quite often is that it doesn’t make too much sense to me how big the continent [of Africa] is, and how unknown or not as known the food is," Eric explains.
This effectively opened doors for competitors on seasons to come. In fact, Season 18 had an entire episode dedicated to creating dishes inspired by different pan-African cuisines.
"To be able to be out there, and take the risk by cooking food that folks weren’t familiar with — the judges specifically — was awesome. To see this continuing on with chefs past my season was exactly what we need," he tells us.
Hence why Eric was so excited to partner with AYO Foods — the company makes pre-made West African meals, sauces, and spices, bringing the flavors he's always loved and grown up with to Western markets.
"AYO foods has been championing West African cuisine and food for some time now... I obviously am a huge fan and advocate of food from the West African region," he says. "And to partner up and put our forces together was a no-brainer."
From Jollof Rice to Cassava Leaf Soup, he says there are too many great products in the lineup to pick a favorite, but they're all worth trying if you're interested in expanding your horizons to Ghanian, Senegalese, and other West African cuisines.
The support he's garnered from his fellow competitors has been unmatched.
Sometimes cooking competition shows foster an environment of jealousy and resentment, but Eric tells us that he and his fellow Season 16 competitors are still incredibly close, and even have an ongoing group chat that's stayed alive since the season aired in 2018. Although he most often keeps up with Justin Sutherland, Eric says they're all a tight-knit group of friends who visit each other's restaurants and stay at each other's homes — as if they were in a frat together.
"We’re all family," he says. "It’s not only great to compete against these chefs, but to build a network as well. And really to call these guys friends, to be able to go anywhere across the nation, and have a place to eat or a place to rest my head is not too bad," he explains.
"We all try to massage that relationship and check in on each other," Eric continues. "We have families coming in and babies coming into the fold now — it's awesome to be part of this fraternity of Top Chef."