Chef Selassie: Celebrating Africa’s Culinary Heritage with Midunu
“The 21st century will be shaped by what happens not just in Rome or Moscow or Washington, but by what happens in Accra, as well,” said President Barack Obama after visiting Accra, Ghana’s capital in 2009. As one influential international publication put it recently – Ghana’s new creative scene is producing stylish new places to eat, drink and appreciate art, all of which is invigorating. If Obama comes back to visit, he would not have to look too far to experience the budding manifestation of his statement, not least in the restaurant industry. None is as influential in shaping this industry as Midunu! As we speak and interview those in the know about Ghana’s foodie scene, none has yet failed to mention Midunu as their number one inspiration.
It is, therefore, a pleasure to have the brains behind Midunu, Chef Selassie Atadika to come on today to share some nuggets with us. I am particularly grateful for her time and the Midunu grace she showed, which I have heard so much about, whilst she juggled to fit this interview into her rather busy schedule. Akpe! (Thank you!).
By way of background, Chef Selassie Atadika spent over a decade engaged in humanitarian work, in some difficult parts of the world with various international organizations and years of self-teaching in the culinary arts. She completed a course work at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, an institution with alumni such as Anthony Bourdain and Nigeria’s budding Chef Elégbèdé.
In 2015, Selassie Atadika was the Special Representative for Ghana at the Accra Premium Embassy Chef’s Showcase and in 2016 was part of their African Chefs Tour. Chef Selassie Atadika holds a Master’s degree in International Affairs from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and a Bachelor’s Degree in Geography modified with Environmental Studies from Dartmouth College and over 10 years experience with the United Nations.
Who or what inspired you to become a Chef?
Ever since I was a child, I have loved everything about cooking. While in primary school, I even used to bake bread for my parents to take to work with them. But it was only later in life that I was ready to take the plunge and do it professionally. The inspiration was actually the African continent: the amazing produce, traditional cooking and preservation techniques, farmers and producers, culinary links in our ceremonies and festivals and flavor profiles which I had experienced in my years of travel in Africa.
So little was known about African cuisine within the continent and the rest of the world, that I wanted to be a storyteller and narrate these stories on a plate.
What don’t people know about you that you wish they did?
Though people may know about me and Midunu for our aesthetically pleasing African food, it goes beyond the visual. I take time to talk to people and understand the historical and cultural context of African dishes. We work to distill the techniques and traditional knowledge behind it. We strive to maintain some of those elements, but also to modify it in a way to attain a broader reach and appreciation for those dishes and ingredients in what we call ‘New African Cuisine’. We want to bring to light forgotten and little known ingredients and recipes while looking at food sustainability and preservation as well. In a continent where an estimated 1.5 billion USD was spent on food importation in 2014, we want our cuisine to support local producers. We work hard to make sure most of the ingredients we use are local. So by dining with us, you are supporting the local economy, and we hope, inspired to use local ingredients in new ways in your domestic kitchen. We hope to inspire Ghanaian locavores and support local value chains.
Midunu’s dining concept is described as “nomadic”. How would you describe a nomadic dining concept to a fine and casual dining enthusiast like me?
Taking from my time as a ‘nomad’, working and traveling throughout Africa, in respect of the nomadic cultures on the continent and acknowledgement of the dynamic nature of the continent, nomadic dining to me is, partaking in a culinary experience outside of the ‘traditional’ restaurant context. Our dining room has no rules or walls. Sometimes it can be in a private garden, other times on a beach, in a gallery or at our location, Midunu House. The one thing that remains constant is high quality food, reflecting the culinary heritage of Africa.
Which of the strands of Midunu reflect your vision more powerfully? The restaurant “without walls” or the event catering arm?
It is hard to say. All the strands ‘celebrate Africa’s culinary heritage’. The food served through Midunu Kitchen for private dining, always has an African flair, our nomadic events feature different regional/thematic African cuisine and our retail line is literally the result of client requests to take home these culinary creations.
If I were lucky enough to be invited to a soirée at a Midunu nomadic dinner, what could I expect?
Our dinners are not just about ‘New African cuisine’, they are a way of experiencing and learning more about the cuisine in various African regions/countries.
The dinners are actually part of my love letter to the African continent.I develop menus around the countries I have visited and the people who have shared their culture with me through their cuisine.
These dinners are also an amazing community of foodies. We encourage networking among dinners, something you would never experience in a traditional restaurant. We are trying to take things back to a time when meal time brought people to the table and encouraged communication and was a communion of sorts.
At the end of these magical evenings, I often see the guests exchanging phone numbers and business cards. You are most welcome at our table, ‘Va midunu’. Which means ‘Come, let’s eat!’ in the Ewe language.
Accra is fast becoming a trendy culinary capital of sorts, thanks to creative forces like yourself. What does the future hold for this new found foodie reputation?
The sky’s the limit! In order for Accra to continue with this upward momentum, culinarians will need to continue to think outside the box and create without abandon for a public open to receiving the change. This will require access to quality local ingredients, trained, qualified and well equipped culinary and hospitality professionals and curious consumers. This all sounds simple, but when you break it down, you will see that quality products require coordination and support from the agricultural and transport/infrastructure, water and power sectors. Trained staff will require reforms in the education and tourism sectors and would require revisiting industry standards. Finally behavioural change, coordination with the tourism, health and media sectors are among some of the requirements needed to educate both national and international diners and sustain this new foodie reputation. The upsurge of Peruvian cuisine on the international scene, didn’t just happen overnight or by accident, it was strategically planned and coordination was key. We must do the same.
As a fellow traveller who is now rooted in Ghana, what attractions would you recommend to travellers coming to Ghana?
There is a lot to see! For those interested in nature, I would definitely check out Kakum National Park, Mole National Park and Wli Falls. History buffs should check out Elmina and Cape Coast Castles among the many forts and castles in the country. Those looking for arts and culture can see how our local textiles are woven and dyed, how glass is turned into beads and how our earthenware and brass casting is made. But no matter what you do, please make sure to stop and eat along the way. Our cuisine is not to be missed!
What would you say to a teenager who wants to become a chef and perhaps own their own restaurant one day?
It takes more than cooking good tasting food to be a chef. You need to have a solid knowledge of ingredients and products, understanding of techniques, methods, processes, curiosity about culture, management of people and resources and sound fiscal control. In short, it’s a multidisciplinary profession, don’t skip out on your math, science or social sciences classes, they will all serve you well. It takes time, dedication and both mental and physical strength. Don’t be intimidated, but get ready for the challenge.