At a time when demand for Eric Adjepong’s cooking has never been higher, it’s been nearly impossible for the average person to taste it.
That has changed — at least for a few weeks — because the Top Chef star has collaborated with workout warrior-targeted delivery service Territory Foods to sell containers of roasted chicken jollof rice in all of the company’s four markets: D.C., Dallas-Fort Worth, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
The Ghanaian-American chef won over a legion of fans with his infectious enthusiasm and his modern approach to West African dishes while becoming a finalist on Season 16 of the popular Bravo cooking competition. After filming the season, he returned to the D.C. area, where he and his wife, Janell, run a dinner party company called Pinch & Plate.
Outside of a few pop-ups at Cork on 14th Street NW, Adjepong was only cooking for customers who could afford to bring him and his crew into their homes. The Territory deal, which runs throughout May, suddenly makes a dish he designed widely available. Territory delivers pre-prepared meals to affiliated gyms or — for a surcharge — directly to people’s homes.
The deal marks the first time Territory will sell a West African-style dish and the first time a dish is being offered in more than one market. Adjepong tells Eater he chose jollof rice for the occasion because it’s an obvious representative for the regional cuisine. He says if an alien came to Earth and asked him what Ghanaian food was, he’d show them a plate of the rice stewed with tomatoes, onions, chiles, and meat.
Territory caters to what it calls “intentional eaters,” refusing to use heavily processed ingredients or anything with gluten, dairy, or nitrates. The only changes Adjepong had to make to his recipe, he says, was switching out canola oil for olive oil and swapping honey in for sugar in a pickling liquid. Territory chefs suggested the addition of sauteed kale, and there’s a marinated tomato garnish.
Adjepong doesn’t cook the jollof rice himself; that task falls on vetted, local chefs who work for the company. But he worked with Territory and made tweaks throughout the development to make sure partnered chefs got it right. The jollof rice had to pass muster with Janell, too.
“My wife eats the dish, and she knows how I would make it or my mom or anybody from my family would make it,” Adjepong says.
Danielle Schaub, the company’s culinary manager for the D.C. area, says distinct layers of flavor in the jollof rice surprise her every time. First she tastes tomatoes, then warming spices like clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Five seconds after taking a bite, she gets hit with a habanero kick.
“I don’t know how he did it,” she says.
The partnership with Territory came about only because Adjepong had a history with the company. A few years ago, he spent a few months overseeing quality assurance for dishes that local chefs make in commercial kitchens.
When Schaub saw him competing on the show, she realized she could give his culinary point of view a different platform.
“It dawned on me that I have access to tens of thousands of people across all of four cities,” Schaub says.
Territory delivers meals twice per week, with chefs making 100-person batches that get chilled for a couple days before delivery. Customers get them cold and pop them in the microwave. Adjepong says that’s actually ideal for jollof rice, because it gives the flavors more time to meld, just like a braise or a pot of chili.
Although Adjepong enjoys the freedom his current working arrangement allows — he has time to shuttle his infant daughter to and from daycare and to watch the NBA playoffs — he says he does plan to open his own restaurant in the future. He’s not ready to share many details, but he did say he’s secured investors and is scouting locations.
Bringing West African food to a new audience, particularly a health-conscious one, made sense to Adjepong, who has a Bachelor’s in nutrition from Johnson & Wales and a Master’s in Public Health from the University of Westminster in London.
He’s excited to see West African food gain popularity, particularly at Kwame Onwuachi’s Kith and Kin, which Adjepong helped open at the Wharf.
A controversial exit from Top Chef raised the chef’s profile even more. He was eliminated for an egusi stew that chefs deemed “gritty,” prompting calls on social media for more diversity on the judging panel.
Adjepong says he doesn’t feel any burden to defend or explain West African food. It’s just what he grew up eating, and what continues to drive his passion for cooking.
“This food has been here for centuries,” Adjepong says. “We’re not reinventing the wheel. We’re just kind of opening the eyes of folks who have been, I guess, ignorant towards this food.”