When Ghanaian American “Top Chef” contestant Eric Adjepong presented the show’s judges with his fufu, he wasn’t sure how they’d react. Although the combination of cassava and plantain flour stirred and pounded into a smooth consistency has been a popular staple in West Africa for centuries, it was seemingly the first time the judges had ever found it on their plates.

Adjepong artfully arranged a white dollop of fufu in the center of a bright, stew-like red sauce, garnished with peppers, yams and plantain chips. Acclaimed chef and “Top Chef” judge Tom Colicchio compared it to Italian gnocchi, and his co-juror Padma Lakshmi acknowledged that the dish would be unfamiliar to many viewers. That was in 2018, the 16th season of the cooking competition show; Adjepong won the episode. His West African flavors left such a mark that they inspired an episode dedicated to pan-African cuisines two seasons later.

Eric Adjepong plates lobster yassa
Chef Eric Adjepong plates lobster yassa with yassa onion jam, puff black rice, palm wine nage and scallion. Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Adjepong was intentional about showcasing African food culture. “I’m a longtime fan of ‘Top Chef,’ and at the time when I got on, I didn’t see any strong West African cuisine, let alone African representation in all of the previous 15 seasons,” says Adjepong. “There were some dishes cooked, sure, but there wasn’t a chef really highlighting food from the second-biggest continent in the world, and I thought that was odd. I then made it my mission: that if I was lucky enough to compete on the show, to specifically represent West African dishes where it made sense. I didn’t do it in every single challenge. I strategically did it where it made sense, and I think that was very impactful.”

In 2024, it’s safe to say that, thanks to Adjepong and a host of other chefs who are highlighting the versatility and sophistication of African and Caribbean cuisine, more Americans are learning about African food. Collectively, these chefs have elevated the fare from corner carryouts to white-tablecloth establishments.

The Pan African Cuisine Elimination Challenge | Top Chef: Portland

Nigerian American chef Kwame Onwuachi, author of Notes From a Young Black Chef, serves up African Caribbean cuisine, such as curried goat patties with a mango chutney and braised oxtail, at his buzzy, upscale restaurant Tatiana in New York City. He’ll offer more Afro-Caribbean-inspired food at Dogon, set to open soon in Washington, D.C. Further South, Senegalese American chef Serigne Mbaye oversees the menu at the elegant restaurant Dakar NOLA, exploring the culinary and cultural connections between Senegal and New Orleans. The seasonal, seven-course menu often features a Louisiana rice offering that emphasizes the similarities between New Orleans jambalaya and the Senegalese version of jollof rice. In Portland, another “Top Chef” alumnus, Haitian American chef Gregory Gourdet, snagged the coveted James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant last year by showcasing Haitian dishes like griyo, which is twice-cooked pork, accompanied by pikliz, a pickled vegetable relish, at Kann, his urbane, “live-fire dinner house.”

Chef Kwame Onwuachi
Nigerian American chef Kwame Onwuachi (pictured here in the Bronx neighborhood where he grew up) serves up African Caribbean cuisine. Chris Sorensen for The Washington Post via Getty Images
Onwuachi's current restaurant Tatiana is in New York City, while his new spot, Dogon, is opening soon in Washington, D.C. Chris Sorensen for The Washington Post via Getty Images

“Many lesser-known cuisines from different parts of the world are finally getting recognized and appreciated. Diners are more excited than ever to dive into something new,” says Nina Compton, the James Beard Award-winning St. Lucian chef who has showcased the versatility and richness of Caribbean cuisine at her acclaimed New Orleans restaurant Compère Lapin.

While African and Caribbean foods, which evolved from the same source, are experiencing a sort of American renaissance, they have been a part of food culture in the United States since before the country even existed. Crops native to Africa, such as watermelon, okra, yams, black-eyed peas, kola nuts (the basis for Coca-Cola), hibiscus, sesame, muskmelons (like cantaloupe and honeydew), and most significantly, African rice, were transported on ships with enslaved Africans during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. When they weren’t laboring over cash crops for their enslavers, these enslaved farmers planted and tended small gardens that ensured that the crops of their homeland flourished.

Nina Compton
St. Lucian chef Nina Compton showcases the versatility and richness of Caribbean cuisine at her acclaimed New Orleans restaurant Compère Lapin. Josh Brasted/WireImage/Getty Images

“Africa is in so much of American food that we don’t even think about it,” says Jessica B. Harris in a promotional video for the Netflix documentary series “High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America,” inspired by her similarly named book. “If you look at the role that we occupied during enslavement, we’re growing the food. We’re processing the food. We’re preparing the food. We’re serving the food.”

Dishes such as jambalaya, gumbo, hoppin’ john, grits, cornbread, barbecued meats, greens cooked with meat for flavor and boiled down into a stew, and benne (sesame seed) wafers were created—the offspring of similar fare that originated in Africa. These dishes are all associated with Southern cooking and are widely available across the U.S., but they display a direct African heritage.

goat egusi with a side of fufu
Goat egusi with a side of fufu Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“It’s the ingredients of African origin but also those foods from the tropics that flourished in the hands of Africans over centuries. In many colonies, the enslaved are the catalyst culture that melds African, Indigenous and European foodways,” says Michael Twitty, a food historian, chef and James Beard Award-winning author of The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South. “We are jambalaya, mofongo, riz djon djon, feijoada, fried chicken, barbecue, jerk and all the hot sauces, rice dishes, and deep-fried treats as well as confections born out of sugar making.”

That history is being reclaimed, and the cultural significance of these dishes is being acknowledged, as groundbreaking African and Caribbean chefs have opened fine-dining restaurants showcasing the diversity of the cuisine as well as its connections to the Black diaspora.

“Let’s be honest, high dining is a consequence of a lot of things … capitalism, colonialism, exploitation of the other. And that’s what gave the West its leisure and comforts on which things like haute cuisine were built,” explains Twitty. “The emphasis was on Europe and the West, not the rest.”

Gregory Gourdet talks with Top Chef contestants
Gregory Gourdet talks with "Top Chef" contestants during season 18's "Pan African Portland" episode. David Moir/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Chef Ayo Balogun moved to New York from a region of Nigeria that borders the West African country of Benin. Its proximity to different cultures and people allowed for diverse culinary influences, so he grew up eating rich and varied foods that are sometimes unfamiliar to the rest of Nigeria. He was excited to introduce the flavors and textures of his homeland to Americans—dishes like fiery pepper soup and Kwara cheese with red pepper and tomato sauce—but he quickly encountered a few hurdles.

When he first attempted to set up a reservation platform for his restaurant, Dept of Culture, someone from the company called to ask what type of cuisine was served there. “I told them it was African,” he recalls. “They said it would be an 11-month wait and then they dropped us. After we opened and became so popular, they asked to come back. I went with another platform.” Balogun says that’s reflective of how West African dishes are perceived by others. “The food from the part of the world where I come from is considered pedestrian, casual or lowbrow here,” says Balogun, who couldn’t disagree more. “People here think it’s not worth a price. I think we have to put a value on our food.”

For Balogun, the experience emphasized the need to create a restaurant with an elevated style that would command respect. “The important thing is to serve food with dignity and not in a casual way, but with a formal aesthetic,” he says, adding that African institutions are rarely considered formal, but he hopes to change that, while infusing a communal African spirit into fine dining. “We are setting new standards.”

At Compton’s Compère Lapin, she felt it was important to present refined cooking techniques in a welcoming atmosphere. “The idea of the Compère Lapin was to make it fun, creative and relaxed with some finesse while not being stuffy,” she explains. “I want to expose diners to food I grew up with, taking them to the Caribbean through their dining experience.” It seems to be working, as curried goat has become the top menu item at her restaurant, evidence that African and Caribbean foods can attract consumers once they are exposed to it.

It should be just a matter of time before the masses become accustomed to eating fufu, jollof (pictured here) or ugali. Onasis Gaisie/Getty Images

The growing popularity of African food culture isn’t just a trend for restaurants. Adjepong’s partnership with Ayo Foods, a West African food brand that distributes waakye (stewed beans and rice) from Ghana and chicken yassa (braised chicken with caramelized onions) from Senegal, among other entrees, to grocery stores across the country or even to homes, is making varied African dishes accessible to the unfamiliar public. Another collaboration with Crate & Barrel features Adjepong’s stylish dinnerware pieces inspired by Ghana’s traditional wood-carved utensils and artisan ceramics.

Beyond more access, Afro-Caribbean cuisine is finally receiving more recognition from the fine-dining community. Chefs like Compton and Onwuachi were among the first to garner awards for African and Caribbean cuisine, although Ethiopian Swedish chef Marcus Samuelsson led the way by blending Ethiopian flavors with Swedish cuisine and winning the James Beard Award for best international cookbook in 2007 for The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa. Innovative restaurants offering African and Caribbean meals continue to receive accolades, with Detroit’s Baobab Fare, a restaurant that highlights East African cuisine like the dense white maize dish ugali; Austin’s Canje, which focuses on Guyanese and other Caribbean flavors; and Dakar NOLA all scoring nominations for this year’s James Beard Awards.

“I wanted to cook food that was true to me, but I couldn’t find African food on a fine-dining level,” says Dakar NOLA’s Mbaye about his quest to open a restaurant that reflected his heritage. “That inspired me to learn about our food stories. I researched, I read articles and books by Jessica B. Harris and Pierre Thiam [a Senegalese chef noted for bringing West African cuisine to the global fine-dining stage]. Chef Pierre really paved the way for us.”

Exclusive, high-visibility opportunities like a Beard Foundation dinner and a New Orleans food festival are also showcasing the complexity and appeal of African and Caribbean food. It should be just a matter of time before the masses become accustomed to eating fufu, jollof or ugali with the same reverence that they feel for their local upscale French or Italian restaurant.

“I want to share the similarities of African food with the people of the world here,” says Balogun. “It doesn’t matter what part of the world you’re from, you will be able to relate to it.”

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.