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story.lead_photo.caption Eric Adjepong, pictured with Sara Bradley (left) and Kelsey Barnard, was a Top Chef contestant whose cuisine focused on West African food. Citing a lack of diversity, Adjepong hopes future seasons will bring a voice to more unfamiliar global flavors.

The dish that could have won Top Chef for Eric Adjepong was one he never had the chance to make. It's a dessert: a goat milk and corn pudding with sorrel gel, hibiscus tapioca, chocolate crumble and a blackberry lavender sorbet. Velvety, crunchy, sweet, bitter and sour. Like the rest of the meal that the judges never got to taste, every bite contains the history of slavery. The ingredients are African, Caribbean and American, reflecting Adjepong's Ghanaian roots and the ugly history that brought our country some of its most beloved culinary traditions.

"The gel that I use, this right here -- the drink is nationally called, in Ghana, sobolo. In Nigeria, it's called zobo. And then, in the Caribbean, they call it sorrel," Adjepong said recently during a visit to The Washington Post. "It's all the same. So [I'm] just telling that story."

There has never been anyone on Top Chef quite like Adjepong, and that's the problem, really. He was the first contestant to focus intensely on West African food, and he impressed the judges week after week with flavors and dishes they don't usually see on the show. But at times, it seemed that Adjepong's cooking was outside their frame of reference.

And then there's the poetic injustice of how it ended. Adjepong made it to the finale, where he competed against two other chefs: Kelsey Barnard of Dothan, Ala., and Sara Bradley of Paducah, Ky. He had performed better than both women, going into the episode with the most wins and the fewest times his dish ranked in the bottom throughout the season (and he made everything from scratch -- Bradley, controversially, used boxed waffle mix in one challenge).

"The food that I was cooking is so severely underrepresented, anyway, that a lot of people don't really understand where that food actually comes from and how important it is to certain people," Adjepong said. So when he was eliminated after his first course -- he and his team had burned the lotus-root chips that topped his jerk-spiced tartare, and judges felt he used too many ingredients -- it cut deeper than any other elimination this season. Barnard went on to win.

Though Adjepong's execution fell short, he was doing something far more intellectually ambitious and confrontational than anyone else on the show -- and, once the judges told him to pack his knives, fans lamented that they'd never be able to see the rest of his meal.

Until now. The Washington-based chef visited The Post recently to cook the final three courses of the dinner he never got to make on the show. His second course was a lobster tail with yassa onion jam, puffed black rice and palm wine nage; his third was pan-seared scallops and braised goat with tamarind glaze, a cassava pave and piri piri jus; and he ended the meal with his aforementioned goat milk and corn pudding dessert.

The dishes were elegantly plated and beautifully executed, outside the pressure-cooker environment of the show, and full of contrasts in flavor and texture. Had all three contestants been able to present their full menus, "I think it would have been a different story," Adjepong said, "But the chips fell the way they fell."

Fans criticized the judges' lack of cultural fluency earlier in the season, when co-host Padma Lakshmi was chastised for wearing cornrows and a white "wife-beater" tank top to an episode filmed at the University of Kentucky's basketball arena. But Adjepong was reluctant to call her attire out: "I was in competition mode, so I wasn't really concerned about anybody's hair."

He hopes that future seasons will bring "a voice or insight that is more global and can speak to flavors that aren't as familiar." But he won't go as far as calling for new judges.

For now, Adjepong continues to cater private dinners and host pop-ups for Pinch & Plate, the company he runs with his wife, Janell. He also has some late spring/early summer pop-ups planned in New York at Craft, Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio's restaurant. Some dishes from Adjepong's would-be finale meal could make an appearance on those menus.

A Washington restaurant will follow in 2020 -- though plans are very preliminary, and Adjepong can't reveal many details yet. "Being patient is the number one thing for me," he said. Some of his investors are black, and when it comes to his concept, "they feel it on a cultural level, as well." There will be a special area of the restaurant that will offer a tasting menu, but he plans to keep prices accessible.

That will perhaps help him avoid a pitfall of another local Top Chef contestant, Kith and Kin chef Kwame Onwuachi, whose first restaurant, the Shaw Bijou, was criticized for its expensive tasting menu. (Before his turn on Top Chef, Adjepong worked at Kith and Kin.) "I'm not going to come to the city and stake out a price point," Adjepong, a relative newcomer to Washington, said. "I'll keep it approachable."

And even though the subject matter will be heavy, the restaurant will still be joyful. "I think the food that I can present is really going to tell the story in a way that's approachable, in a way that's educational, but also in a way that's tasty," he said. And if the Top Chef judges want to experience the meal they missed, they can just go to his restaurant: All of these dishes will be on the menu.

Weekend on 04/04/2019

Print Headline: Top Chef judges never tasted Adjepong's finale

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