Community feature: Chef Kuukua Yomekpe builds community with West African cuisine
According to Chef Kuukua Yomekpe, it's common for middle-class families in Ghana to have “house helps,” or caregivers who work in exchange for room and board and education. While the caregivers are often close to the age of the children, Yomekpe's “Auntie Mercy” was much, much older, and became like a grandmother.
“I recall most of our experiences with her being around food,” said Yomekpe, who also remembered Auntie Mercy's patience and willingness to let her help in the kitchen and try things on her own. “That's why I do what I do now. … She was so passionate about food and I learned most of my cooking from her.”
Yomekpe now owns Asempe Kitchen, a Ghanaian restaurant that pops up during lunchtime every Wednesday in the Hills Market Downtown, where she will also join winemaker Rob McDonald to provide a special public dinner service on Thursday, June 15.
But Yomekpe's long and winding road to cooking took her to different parts of the U.S. and through different careers.
About 20 years ago, at 18 years old, Yomekpe immigrated to Columbus with her family. She obtained a master's degree in English from the University of Dayton and worked as a rector in student residential housing at the University of Notre Dame. Then she moved to Berkeley, California, to study at the Graduate Theological Union.
“I wanted to be a pastoral counselor or [college] campus minister,” Yomekpe said. But when she struggled to find employment, she started catering.
“I've always cooked,” she said. “I had dinner parties where people could bring the groceries and I would teach them how to cook. … [But] I never really envisioned it as a full-time job.”
After an attempt to move back to Ghana permanently — “It just was not for me,” she said — and a stint in New York, Yomekpe returned to Columbus to carve out a space in the food industry.
With the help of her mother, Asempe Kitchen's second chef, Yomekpe provides traditional Ghanaian dishes, which can take up to five hours to prepare. Most options, like the Kontonmire Froyi (spinach stew), Nkruma Froyi (okra stew) and Edua Froyi (black-eyed pea stew), start with a base of onions, tomatoes, garlic and ginger. The Nkatsi Nkwan (peanut soup) and plantains are also popular.
Other options include a cabbage and lamb dish; Ethiopian dishes like Shiro, or stew with lentils in chickpea powder; occasional “party foods” like the yuca-based Gari Foto; and the starchy Fufu by special request.
Although food is often prepared with palm oil in Ghana, Yomekpe uses canola or olive oil. Ingredients are always fresh and vegan options are always available. She has also adjusted spice levels for the Western palate.
“Usually, we would probably cook a pound of stew with maybe one habanero or two, and now there's none,” said Yomekpe, who provides a special hot sauce, Asempe Moko, that customers can add on the side and mix in their food to varying degrees.
The pillars of Yomekpe's restaurant are curiosity (the meaning of “asempe” in the Fante dialect of the Akan language), adventure and learning.
“It really is an invitation to people to be more open-minded,” she said. “I think people have graduated to Mediterranean, Indian [and] definitely Mexican, but they're still a little unsure about African.”
“If we think back to all the different foods that have become part of the American mainstream food culture, they're all immigrant foods,” she continued. “Everybody brought their food when they came. But my concern is why is African food taking so long?”
Yomekpe acknowledged the growing popularity of Somali restaurants in Columbus, and offerings from Senegalese restaurants, but she said Ghanaian cuisine has yet to catch up. “The Somali population in Columbus is huge,” she said. “The funny thing is the Ghanaian population in Columbus is also huge, but nobody talks about that.”
Drelyse African Restaurant on the North Side is the only other Ghanaian restaurant Yomekpe knows about, and it's owned by her cousin.
Although Yomekpe hopes to open a brick and mortar in 2020, she is content with popping up around the city as a convenience for people who may not get to travel to the other African restaurants on the North Side. She is also considering opening a food truck.
Beyond introducing customers to African cuisine, Yomekpe also uses cooking to build community, which is evident by the Hills Market clientele, according to Emily Strand, who helps run the register.
“We have this cast of regulars that come and get to know one another,” said Strand, also a longtime friend of Yomekpe. “We're all sharing stories and we're talking about the food … [and] our experiences relating to food.”
“I kind of see the cooking as a ministry of feeding people,” Yomekpe said.
St. Mayhem Winemaker Dinner with Asempe Kitchen
The Hills Market
6 p.m. Thursday, June 15
95 N. Grant Ave., Downtown