Zoe Adjonyoh Brings African Food to the MassesThe Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Zoe Adjonyoh was born in the U.K. to a Ghanaian father and an Irish mother, but she didn’t understand her Ghanaian heritage until she explored it in the kitchen. Starting Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen was an “accident,” and though the restaurant has since shuttered, the brand and mission live on through Adjonyoh’s cookbook, her new spice shop, and her work with Black Book. She told us all about it while whipping up a pot of jollof.
Both of my parents were immigrants to the U.K. My mom used to get care packages from my grandmother with Galtee cheese, homemade soda bread, red lemonade, Tayto crisps — all of the wonders of Irish culture in a box! There’d be great excitement when it arrived, and my mom loved those packages because it was like getting a piece of home, even though you could get all of those things in the U.K. So I noticed from quite a young age how important one’s relationship is with food.
I noticed from quite a young age how important one’s relationship is with food.
Meanwhile, my dad had a somewhat-private relationship with Ghanaian food. He’d get salted fish and hot pepper sauce from African markets, so there was this other extreme of ingredients and flavors in the home. But he’d cook it for himself; he didn’t think I’d be interested. I became fascinated with that process for him, and it piqued my interest because it was so different.
I asked my dad to teach me the Fante and Twi I heard him speaking on the phone, but he had no interest in passing that knowledge to me. He didn't understand the relevance. What I now understand is that he just wanted us to assimilate because he had come to the U.K. during “No Irish, no Blacks, no dogs” — a very racist, unfriendly environment.
I discovered my Ghanaian heritage through the food, and I started Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen by accident. I had no intention of being a chef or a caterer. In 2010, I had just returned from a trip to America, where I had a great time and spent all of my money. I was kicked out of my apartment because my girlfriend was using our home as a gallery during Hackney Wicked, and I was bored. I thought, There’s people but no food, so I’ll make money selling food. I made a peanut-butter stew (aka groundnut soup) that my friends always ask me to make.
A friend posted photos of this peanut-butter stew — famous only to us — but it created this social situation outside the apartment, and lots of questions came up. People didn’t know where Ghana was or what a plantain was, and they asked me to do it again the next week.
The next year we did it differently. We turned the apartment into a restaurant for four days, and it was solidly packed. The queue was around the block to get into this “restaurant,” and people were trying to book again the next week or month. I explained that this was my apartment, and I collected their email addresses.
What got me excited about it was the bringing people together and the sharing. It was very fun and experience-driven. I just loved hosting, having all of these strangers in my house who don't know each other but would all be friends by the end of a lovely meal. This was no ordinary supper club. People would come in twos or fours, and I'd split them up, have them elbow-to-elbow so they couldn't avoid talking to each other to pass the food around. It was lovely to watch, and relationships and work opportunities and dates would come out of it. People would email me weeks later saying, “My God, thank you so much for my spirit animal!”
I just loved hosting, having all these strangers in my house who don't know each other but would all be friends by the end of a lovely meal.
I started my MA in creative writing at Goldsmiths, and I figured I would read and write and cook. What a wonderful life! But Ghana Kitchen became very popular very quickly in blogs and the press. I wanted to move to Berlin to be my bohemian best self and write my memoir, so I flew back and forth between London and Berlin for nearly a year, hosting pop-ups and supper clubs in both places.
Back in London, I decided to make a business. I tried to understand why people were so in love with the concept — I wasn’t the first West African food business in the U.K., for Christ's sake! The conclusion I came to is that there were a lot of West African restaurants in London that weren’t geared toward anybody outside of the community. There were places for the uncles and aunties to get a flavor of home, and they didn't care if white people knew about it; I was really interested in opening up and sharing the food. So that's what happened. Zoe's Ghana Kitchen is on a mission to bring African food to the masses to change the narrative around Africa and African cuisine.
Zoe's Ghana Kitchen is on a mission to bring African food to the masses.People always ask me to describe Ghanaian cuisine; you can't really sum it up. Ghana is a massive country with really different landscapes across it. The north is very arid and dry, so there are a lot of dried fermented foods. Along the coast in the south you've got a heavy fish diet and a lot of leafy stuff. For me, the cornerstone of Ghanaian cuisine is our version of a mirepoix, but it’s four things: ginger, pepper (hot or not), tomatoes, and onions. I love a Scotch bonnet chili pepper, so that’s my fifth thing. So, you see, Ghanaian food is not as inaccessible as people might imagine, because that's the cornerstone of most things that get made — in sauces and soups, a mixture of those things is always evident.
What I love about Ghanaian food is the variety of the spices — the fragrances, the aromatics, and the health benefits of all of those things. Ninety-nine percent of what gets eaten in Ghana is wholesome and nutritious, with insane antioxidants. It’s exciting to work with all of these amazing spices like dawa dawa, grains of selim, and alligator pepper because they deliver so much.
What I love about Ghanaian food is the variety of the spices — the fragrances, the aromatics, the health benefits of all of those things.I try to reimagine a dish for a contemporary world of cuisine, like, I love this, but what if we did it this way? How do we break down the elements in a new, interesting way? What if we cook it slightly differently? What if we tempura it? It's about playing with the ingredients to get the most we can out of them and exploring other ways to cook them.
Ghanaian cuisine is still evolving; it’s a new concept. It's not like Italy or France, where you've had 400 years to develop a gastronomy.
Ghanaian cuisine is still evolving; it’s a new concept. It's not like Italy or France, where you've had 400 years to develop a gastronomy. It's only been this century, really, that we've started to consider what else it can be and where it can go. I am one of many chefs exploring that now.
Jollof is a one-pot rice dish that originates from the Wolof tribe in Senegal. This dish is ubiquitous across West Africa — it’s a “party rice” for special occasions because it takes a bit of process to make it. Jollof is one of those fiercely protected identity dishes, like paella for the Spanish or tacos for Mexicans. People care about jollof, and it's really important to understand that people who grow up eating jollof will never be happy with anybody else's version of jollof. If it’s not your mom's, it's not right. If it’s not your grandmother's, it's not right. So I've tried to make a jollof that is suitable for all palates.
It's about playing with the ingredients to get the most we can out of them, exploring other ways to cook them, and then reimagining the whole thing.
Recently, I decided to open a spice shop to honor the legacy of this brand I’ve built for 10 years. I had a restaurant in Brixton for a few years, and it was very popular, but it was too small to be profitable. The intention was to move to a bigger site, but the universe didn't want that to happen. With the spice shop, the focus is on decolonizing the food industry and decolonizing people's diet. We created an ecosystem for people to engage with Ghanaian food by cooking it themselves and to understand the relationship between the producers and the end product, and how important that supply chain is and how important it is to bring the wealth back to Africa and support Black business and Black-owned farming. So it's expanded a bit mission-wise, but I’m still doing the same job, which is bringing African food to the masses.
My approach is not to tell people you have to cook this way for it to be Ghanaian. I’m about showing people how wonderful the flavors and ingredients are, so you can have a go at cooking something traditional like this jollof, or you can use these ingredients and flavors in lots of other ways because they're just good ingredients. So why not incorporate them anyway?!