Choppin’ It Up With Chef Afrik

I first “met” Chef Afrik when she submitted a post on my Facebook page as part of Wanderlust Wednesdays (by the way, stay tuned as I will be revamping this blog carnival soon). When I followed the link to her site and read about her, I was immediately intrigued. For starters, Chef Afrik, whose real name is Adhis, blogs about food. But not just any food – African food. In the U.S. and many other countries, foodie culture is an absolute obsession. But African cuisine has been largely omitted from the foodie cultural dialogue and hasn’t gotten a speck of the attention that other cuisines have gotten. So when I came across Chef Afrik – a blog committed to shedding light on the African food scene as well as African travel, I knew that I had to introduce myself to the voice behind the blog.

But what really has me pumped about Chef Afrik is Adhis’ upcoming project, Eat, Pray, Africa, during which she’ll explore the entire African continent through its food and culture – ALL 54 countries! And luckily for us, we’ll get to read about Adhis’ remarkable journey throughout Africa as she examines the culinary culture of each place she visits. But more importantly, we’ll get an inside look at how Adhis’ journey will impart her with a greater understanding of self and the beauty of Africa’s land and people. Because don’t we all travel for these very reasons – a greater understanding of ourselves and our connection to others?

So without further delay, check out my interview with Chef Afrik…

Photo courtesy of ChefAfrik.com

Where are you from?

I’m Kenyan

Where do you currently live?

Washington D.C.

Which countries have you lived in?

I was born in Sweden and I’ve lived in Kenya, Peru, and the U.S.

What do you do for a living?

I’m a multimedia journalist.  I also work full-time for a TV network in D.C. and freelance for a number of publications here and in Africa.  I love it because it allows me to talk with different kinds of people from all over. I love telling people’s stories – something that carries over well to Chef Afrik. I recently interviewed Chimamanda Adichie and it was a highlight of my career.

How did you get involved in cooking and the culinary world, and why do you call yourself a “pseudo-chef”?

While living in New York after grad school (during a particular time of self-reflection), I realized I didn’t really know how to make Kenyan dishes. In researching online, I was quite disappointed with the selection of African dishes and other African cuisines. There is a Chinua Achebe saying that goes something like, “If you don’t like someone’s story, write your own.” Although I didn’t have it in mind at the time, that’s essentially what I did, and that’s basically how Chef Afrik started. As I’ve grown and evolved over the last year and a half, Chef Afrik has also evolved to include not only African food, but African culture and travel.

I call myself a “pseudo-chef” because unlike my fellow food bloggers, it’s not a love of cooking that drives me to do this. I enjoy food. I enjoy the traditions and ceremonies surrounding food. As I began working through Chef Afrik, I realized that I was more fascinated by the people and stories behind the foods rather than the making of the food. You’ll notice there are not as many food recipes on the site as you’d think.

Even the foods I do make have a great story behind them. As a journalist, I’m all about the story. African food just happens to be my avenue to tell the stories.

When you started your blog, you described yourself as “the ultimate preparer that never really moved up the ladder.”  How has your cooking evolved since you started blogging about African cuisine, and do you now consider yourself “an actual chef”?

Ha! I did call myself that. And when my family gets together I immediately undertake my role with no qualms. My palate has evolved immensely since I started the blog. I trust my cooking instincts more – especially with cuisines that I’m unfamiliar with. Though I follow recipes most of the time because I deal with foreign cuisines, I trust my taste buds more than the instructions as to what tastes best.

Until I get professional training, which I’ve considered, I don’t consider myself a chef. I once received an email from a nice guy in Connecticut who wanted to pay for me to fly to Connecticut and cater a meal for him and his organization. I had to decline because that’s not my expertise. It’s more of a confidence thing than anything else.

Do you ever plan on obtaining formal culinary training?

I’ve considered it. I went to a journalism school that pushes hard news – politics, foreign affairs, finance, over soft news – entertainment, movies, music, food, pop culture. Neither is better than the other, but I’ve grown into my profession thinking that I would cover hard news.

I randomly met an alumnus from my program last year who works for Gourmet magazine, and I asked her for advice. She said that if I really wanted to be taken seriously as a food writer, then I need to consider culinary training.

So if I was to train, it would be for the purpose of bettering my food and cultural writing, and not necessarily to become a chef.

In your opinion, why has African cuisine been largely omitted from foodie culture?

A number of things, including the perception of Africa to the world, the marketing of African food, its diversity and how we as Africans also self-perpetuate some of the stereotypes put on us.

You know, I ask this of all the African food bloggers I interview for my “Get to Know” series. And I ask it realizing that it’s a difficult question. And I do get different answers, but they all boil down to what I just said.

What is the African food scene like in D.C.? Also, what are some of your favorite restaurants there?

Washington D.C. has the largest Ethiopian population in the world outside of Ethiopia. As a result, Ethiopian cuisine and culture runs D.C. There are many great restaurants here. Being that it’s an international city, you’ll find your mandatory West African restaurants. There are great Moroccan and Tunisian restaurants as well. Nando’s Peri Peri, the popular Mozambican restaurant, is here too!  Outside of that, southern Africa is not well represented in Washington D.C. There’s a greater selection in the surrounding Virginia and Maryland suburbs.

My favorite restaurant is Taste of Tunisia in Arlington and an Eritrean restaurant in D.C. called Keren.

What’s your favorite ingredient to cook with?

It changes often, but at the moment, it’s okra because I’ve found so many ways to use it in my research. It’s an ingredient with chutzpah.

What’s your favorite type of cuisine?

I studied abroad in Peru. Lima is considered a South American food capital. I didn’t understand good food outside of my mama’s food until I lived in Lima. I love a good ceviche and I cannot wait to try an African ceviche when I hit the Atlantic and Indian coastal countries in Africa.

When you need some comfort, what’s your go-to dish, African or otherwise?

My mother’s oxtail dish.

Let’s say you have company coming over for a dinner party centered on Kenyan cuisine. What’s on the menu?

Chapatis, stew, peanut butter spinach, rice, ugali, and coconut tilapia.

What are the similarities between African and African-American cuisines?

Another big question. I’m not too much of an expert on this though most African diaspora food has its roots in West African cuisines. Others can speak better on that. I can say that there are many similarities with West African cuisine where most slaves that ended up in America were originally from.

Let’s talk about Eat, Pray, Africa. Please provide a bit of detail about the project. You plan to visit all 54 countries on the continent – where will your journey begin, where will it end, and how long do you think it will take?

Eat, Pray, Africa is my baby. It’s a project I’ve been working on for almost a year now in one way or another. Named after Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love which is one of my favorite travel memoirs, it’s a multi-year journey that will have me exploring food, travel, and culture through all 54 countries in Africa. What inspired it? Initially it began from struggling to research the food I wanted to write about for Chef Afrik where I aim to write about food from all over the continent. I thought, “It’s easier to get this info on the ground.” So I decided to make it happen.

But also, as a young African woman trying to figure out my life and goals, it’ll be a trip of self discovery. The trip will begin next summer, and I’m not sure when it’ll end, but the goal is to spend at least a month in each country – so you can calculate that. This journey will be a complete lifestyle change.

How do you intend to do most of your traveling – by air, by land, by sea? Please give us a feel for your itinerary.

I don’t want to share anything until I have everything down pat, and it’s still a year away. For now I can tell you it will start in Tunisia, and most of my travel will be by land because it’s cheaper.

How will you financially support yourself during your journey?

I’ve been saving for this trip for some time now. Also, I hope to get some sponsorship through the trip. Still figuring a lot of it out. I’ve been thinking about a kickstarter as someone recommended to me, but not sure yet.

I read that your biggest fear about Eat, Pray, Africa is that the trip won’t happen. As you see it, what’s the biggest roadblock standing in your way, and how do you intend to overcome it?

Myself, really. I can honestly make anything I want happen if I work hard enough.

But for a more specific answer, there’s no guide book for this. No one has really done what I’m doing before and it can be hard figuring it out. I can grab tips here and there from people, but I have to play much of it by ear, talk with people I know, or trust my instincts. I assume this is something I’ll have to deal with even once the trip begins, but it’s a soft muscle right now.

I started a mailing list of co-conspirators with whom I’ll be sharing my journey leading up to the journey. These are people I know and love, and people I met through the blog. Their feedback and support will help a lot with this. It’s a group effort.

Although I’m going to Tanzania this December, I haven’t been to Africa yet, but whenever I visit Jamaica where my husband is from, I always get the sense that it’s what Africa would be like. I was reading your post about your visit to Jamaica, and I found it interesting that you saw similarities between the cultures. Do you think that Eat, Pray, Africa will eventually expand to include the African Diaspora?

Perhaps, but that’s not my intent at this point in time.

There are so many similarities between Africa and Jamaica! I saw them in Jamaica and during a trip to Puerto Rico last year. I’m especially fascinated with Afro-Cuban food that I’ve often tried when I visit Miami. I think it’s a natural progression to discuss the food in the diaspora, but for now it is not my focus.

I may announce more on that once Eat, Pray, Africa plans are set.

Sipping coconuts in Jamaica
Photo courtesy of ChefAfrik.com

Which African country are you most looking forward to visiting, and which country is giving you some pause? Why?

You’re asking me to pick favorites here – not fair! I really want to visit Mozambique. I’ve always had a thing for the lusophone countries. The most pause? Perhaps Libya because I’m having the most struggles with figuring out logistics there.

What is your vision for the Chef Afrik brand?

I get many questions about this –

“Will you write a cookbook?”

“A TV show?”

“A travel agency?” Etc.

I’ve never been much of a planner – I let life lead me. What I can say is that I want it to be a creative, fun, and delicious space that demonstrates the beauty of Africa and its culture and people from my point of view. Cliché? Perhaps, but it’s true.

Is a cookbook in your future?

No. I think this comes from my chef response earlier.  A memoir with recipes perhaps, but I’ll never say never.

Be sure to follow Chef Afrik’s Eat, Pray, Africa journey on her blog and follow her on Twitter for updates.

Are you a fan of African cuisine?

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10 Responses to “Choppin’ It Up With Chef Afrik”

  1. Dorothy July 8, 2013 at 6:23 am #

    When I say that Ethiopian is one of my favorite cuisines I usually get, “They have food in Ethiopia?” as a response. I grew up in the 80s when Ethiopia was known because of the horrible famine. I lived in Ghana for 27 months and I’d say I love about half the food and hate the other half :) There’s a chance I might go back for work. If I do you’d be welcome to visit!
    Dorothy recently posted…Selexyz Dominicanen – Sundays in My CityMy Profile

    • Dana Carmel July 8, 2013 at 9:30 am #

      Geez – I was born in the ’80s also, but there are lots of Ethiopian restaurants around (at least in big cities) for folks to try! If you ever move back to Ghana, consider your invitation accepted! ;-)

  2. Adhis July 3, 2013 at 8:26 am #

    Hi Dana,

    Thanks for the lovely interview. I really appreciate it! It’s an honor that you would be interested in what I am doing.

    I am looking fwd to sharing tips with you.

    Best

    Adhis
    Adhis recently posted…Fried Chicken, Fried BrainMy Profile

    • Dana Carmel July 3, 2013 at 8:32 am #

      Of course – it was a pleasure and I can’t wait to follow your remarkable journey!

  3. memographer July 2, 2013 at 9:39 am #

    That’s a great interview, Dana. I also was surprised by quality of food in Lima. A regular lunch in a regular street restaurant was delicious…
    Can’t wait to go to Ethiopia and try some local dishes.
    memographer recently posted…Photo Trilogy: Rapa Nui – The Island. The People. The MuseumMy Profile

    • Dana Carmel July 2, 2013 at 11:23 am #

      Thanks – glad you enjoyed it. I have yet to make it to Peru, but I absolutely love Peruvian food – it’s so unique.

  4. Salika Jay
    Twitter: gawaya
    July 1, 2013 at 11:41 pm #

    I’m yet to try African cuisine but it’d be great to try some of her dishes.
    Salika Jay recently posted…Why You Should Take An Alaska CruiseMy Profile

    • Dana Carmel July 2, 2013 at 6:53 am #

      I’m not that well-versed in African cuisine either. Mainly because it’s not widely available where I am. There are lots of Ethiopian restaurants, but not many other options apart from that.

  5. Arianwen
    Twitter: BeyondBlighty
    July 1, 2013 at 6:37 pm #

    I’d love to try some of her dishes! When I was in Tanzania, we had a chef in the hostel who kept trying to make British and American favourites but generally got it a bit wrong! I loved it still, but it wasn’t authentic African cuisine!
    Arianwen recently posted…Diving with sharks in AucklandMy Profile

    • Dana Carmel July 1, 2013 at 10:07 pm #

      I’m definitely looking forward to the food in Tanzania. I’m hoping for the day that African cuisine will become more mainstream.

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