Rachel Adjei is a Black chef from Rexdale, Ontario (with roots from Ghana) and the founder of The Abibiman Project, a culinary education initiative that seeks to promote African foods and cultures in both the professional food industry and society at large. Spring spoke to Rachel to learn about how the Abibiman Project is serving up food, culture, politics and Black pride in Rexdale.
What is the Abibiman Project? What motivated you to start it?
The best way I can describe the Abibiman Project is as a culinary education initiative. It’s not exactly a restaurant and it’s not exactly a shop. It’s about integrating African food and culture. It’s not just about giving people food. It’s also about giving them the learning experience so they understand the roots of the food, they understand why things are a certain way so it’s not just them eating but they’re also engaging in the culture. Considering the moment we’re living in now and how long it’s taken for African food to be recognized in general food culture, people can’t just be given it and run with it, they need a background because then they will care. That’s really the goal.
My motivation came from never having the pleasure of making my own cuisine professionally, even after working in so many different restaurants and making so many different cuisines. Sometimes I’ve made it for a staff meal, maybe I’ve just made it for my coworkers, but I have never cooked any type of African cuisine on a menu and that’s not fair. Everyone should have the opportunity to cook their own food at a high level. Since I’m trained as a fine-dining chef, I would ideally like to make fine-dining food in my culture’s food. And for people coming into the industry that look like me, that have my background, they deserve that too. That’s what really pushed me to this.
Part of what makes Abibiman unique is that it isn’t your traditional restaurant or take-out. What is the set-up like?
What I’ve done is I’ve created a few different sections for sale at The Tempered Room (1374 Queen St W, Parkdale), which is where I’m set up. We have spices and condiments available and the idea is that people buy them, take them home and they can explore them in the comfort of their own home. There’s no pressure to be sitting at a restaurant and having a waiter hover over them. They can use the ingredients and see how their palate likes certain things, whether they feel more eager to try bigger and different recipes. That’s the goal.
Every month there’s a new feature, whether it be one or two main items and a pastry to give people a more authentic taste. That way you get personal exploration, the authentic taste and together you really get the melding of understanding the culture and the food.
An important part of Abibiman is connecting African food with the Rexdale community you grew up in. Can you tell us more about that connection?
I grew up in a community that was extremely diverse. Everyone came from a whole array of different backgrounds. Fortunately, since my upbringing was so diverse, I could go to school with my own Ghanaian food that might have a particular smell and it be no issue because I was surrounded by people from diverse backgrounds that may have eaten similar food. When I brought a smelly fish for lunch, it wasn’t a big deal.
But, as I went through middle school and high school, I saw the diversity I was used to change. When the environment you’ve grown up in has so many people of so many diverse backgrounds, and then you get slowly and slowly assimilated into a culture that is more white, you view the big difference. But I don’t want to lose those roots because in the world that I live in right now, I’m not surrounded by all that diversity the same way I was as a kid. Also, while my experiences growing up in Rexdale are different to other people’s, I still want to give back to that community so that people have the opportunities that I did. For example, not everyone had the path of going through French Immersion school and having the ability to go live in France and work in France as I did. That was an opportunity I had and I want people to see that there’s steps that can be taken to help, to build people up so they can continue doing things which is why all the profits go back towards the northwest part of Toronto because that is where I came from and that’s what I want to support.
I know food is just a small thing and there are so many other things that need to be addressed, but in my head food is so easy because it’s so easy to connect to. Everybody eats, right? There’s no person who won’t want to talk about food. Even if it’s just “I need to eat so I don’t die”. Food is a conversation starter. It connects people, so for me I think it’s the strongest connection I have back to my people. Even though we’re all from different places, we all have different cuisines, it still lies in the idea that you need to eat. It’s one of those things, and people have food insecurity in the area too, so it’s all connected.
The Abibiman Project talks about multiple things, not just physical food, but also culture, Black pride, food sovereignty. Can you talk more about these connections?
In my head, people in general have a hard time making certain connections that need to be made. And for me, the acceptance of Black people, Black culture and Black pride are easier if you go through an avenue that is easily approachable, like food. It makes it helpful for people who aren’t used to accepting new things. Of course, unfortunately, it shouldn’t have to be this way, that you need to make it easy for people to accept.
The idea is that it’s not only about the actual food. For example, if I serve you a dish with all the bones in it and you’re someone who is used to eating North American food where all the bones are removed, it’s a weird concept. But in Africa, if you chew bones, you’re getting extra nutrients, you’re strengthening your teeth, there’s different cultural elements that are also embedded in food. Other examples can be the reason why you eat with your hands or why you only eat with your right hand and not your left.
I want people to understand that it’s not just about what you’re eating. Every dish has a story, ever dish has a history. Why do they eat gumbo in South America? It’s because okra was brought over from West Africa and gumbo comes from a name from an old African language that has been lost. It’s very similar to the word gumbo, which just translated to okra. The idea is that there are so many connections that people aren’t actively making because they don’t have to, right? Where, in my world, when I’m trying to sell this new concept to you, I really need to touch on all of those elements because it’s not just about the food. If it were just about the food I would just go and make French food, take the profit and still donate it to the Black community. But that’s not the point. You need to see a different perspective, you need to understand different stories, different experiences because we all have voices. We all need to be heard. That’s what I really want to emphasize because I’m tired. I’m really, really tired of hearing the same things, seeing the same things and we need to change as a community. We need to grow, we need to evolve, that’s what I really want.
You highlighted in one of your Instagram posts how food connects people across the African continent that are divided by the arbitrary borders created by colonialism. Can you share more of that?
Firstly, the thing that I’m most pleased about over the past few months with this growing of people protesting for Black peoples’ rights and voices is that I can bring up colonialism in conversation with ease. I don’t care who gets uncomfortable because unfortunately it’s the reality of what created the majority of African food culture since European powers decided they were going to split the continent up.
In each country there’s at least 30 different tribes, there’ll be 200 languages and a bunch of different religions. Yes, it separates people but at the same time everybody has similar food. Across Africa everybody eats plantains, maybe they eat it at a different ripeness, but they still eat it. Indigenous plants like peanuts and black-eyes peas and things like okra, everybody eats it. However, while things like chilies, tomatoes, potatoes and casava are extremely popular, they are from South America. So had it not been for the Atlantic Slave Trade bringing people and products, we wouldn’t have the same food culture we do today. We’re still connected by that, even for people who have ancestors from Africa that didn’t have direct experience with the slave trade. But you can still see the traces of it in the food. You could eat food in Kenya and then you could eat food in Senegal, but they’ll be different because they’re from different parts of the continent. But it’s not like a person from Senegal would eat someone from Kenya’s food and be like “this is not African food”. There’s still a connection because of nomadic tribes, hunter gatherers, different elements in every community. And we’re still connected by the need to eat. We eat what is available, what grows year-long.
In northern Ghana they cook with shea butter but in southern Ghana they cook with palm oil because that’s what they have. Are they cooking the same dishes? Yes. Will they have a different flavour? Yes. But you’re still doing the same thing. It’s that connection that no matter where you are, no matter what you’re doing, your culture is embedded in your food and if you went to a different country they wouldn’t look at you like you’re doing something crazy. I mean, there’s a battle in West Africa for who made jollof rice but at the same time, everyone’s still making rice with tomatoes. That’s the main idea, that we’re all still connected, no matter who says “I’m doing it right, you’re doing it wrong”. It’s still the same thing at the base line.
What future do you envision for The Abibiman Project? Or your own personal goals?
Initially this wasn’t the plan I had for The Abibiman Project, to be perfectly honest. COVID-19 changed that for me. But that’s ok. I really wanted to do a cocktail party or a seated dinner, or do a salon and have artists and musicians from the Black community come and express themselves. Obviously that can’t happen right now. It’s not the safest idea and I don’t want to risk anything for anyone. But ideally what would happen is that there would be more of a conversation.
Yes, my target is the Black community, but I don’t need to convince them to be involved in their own culture. I need to bring in people who know nothing about the food, who are scared, who are confused, who don’t usually take risks and engage in different cultures and understanding other peoples’ lives. Those are the people I want to target because those are unfortunately the people that are going to be the ones who make or break what I’m doing here. Because unfortunately society’s approval is what helps things like this grow. As I said it’s not just a dialogue about the actual food, it’s about the acceptance of the cultures and traditions.
Maybe I could grow by having a bigger market or have more items available, or start doing recipes books or I could do workshops. I would like to grow the menu for the feature that I do every month. But at the same time because it’s a non-profit, waste is a huge issue. I can’t be going crazy sourcing products that cost too much money and then not make enough back because ideally, I donate as much as possible. I would need more of a following, more support, so that I can grow while that’s happening. Otherwise I’m going to end up doing too much and then failing because I’m doing this mostly alone. Not because I have to. I have been offered help, but at the same time I think I know two other Black chefs in the industry personally. Neither of them are from African backgrounds, which doesn’t matter but the inner perspective that I have, even the nostalgic aspect of cooking certain foods, they’re not going to have. You can follow a recipe, but a recipe is just a guideline, right? There are certain elements that are going to be missing. So for me, it’s also a personal challenge because I’m finding what I can do alone, safely and that’s not going to blow up in my face. But also, if there’s a big enough following, a big enough community, I want to have a dialogue. For example, if I make a dish from Gabon that I know nothing about and I’ve made a horrible mistake, and someone who is from that background contacts me and says “no, you should do it this way”, that is me learning and that is me growing. I think this should be focused on community involvement.
I don’t know everything about African food. I am one person, my family is from Ghana in West Africa so that gives me a limited lens. I’ve studied and experienced it. I’ve taught myself this, but at the same time there’s people who will have better knowledge, better stories, so I don’t need to do this alone. I want it to be a community-involved activity. If anybody knows anything, I will take the knowledge because we need to do this together, right? It’s not a matter of I, I, I, I. This is for community growth. This is for community progress and I want it to be as big and sustainable as possible while keeping the message at heart. I have no desire to grow bigger than I need to if we lose the value of what this is.
How can people find out more and support the Abibiman Project?
Right now, all I have for social media is the Instagram page. I am my own social media manager and it’s quite a lot of effort. I respect people who do that, because for me when I’m having to remember to take pictures when I’m cooking or developing a recipe, it’s a lot. But that’s the easiest way to find me and contact me @theabibimanproject.
I will respond to any messages or comments that people have because I want to engage people. I’m also usually at The Tempered Room (1374 Queen St W, Parkdale) where I’m set up two or three days a week. If anyone comes in and wants to talk to me, I’m there and I’m happy to have the conversation. I’ve also given the rest of the staff there a rundown of what’s happening and what’s going on, so they do have some insight. If someone came in and they wanted to buy a certain spice, they could tell you what to use it for, what the flavour profile is because, regardless of the fact that it’s me, I’m not everywhere all the time. I also have my email connected to my Instagram account, so I will accept emails as a form of contact. I’m here, I’m ready to talk, I love to talk about food, to talk about culture, so any conversation is great.
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