This Banker Left Her Corporate Job to Tell the Stories of African Chefs and Cuisines in Her Podcast 'Item 13'
From immersive events to a new restaurant, Yorm Ackuaku's work is redefining African food for a global audience.
When co-workers would ask Yorm Ackuaku, “What is African food?” the question irked her, and she didn’t know how to answer.
“At that point, I hadn't traveled outside of West Africa, so I couldn't speak for the rest of the continent,” she says. “There’s a wide variety of food in Ghana alone. I could only imagine what that meant across the continent, even when you think about European colonization.”
To answer the question would take a lifetime. But she was willing to try.
This was in 2015, when Ackuaku lived in Germany for her work in corporate banking. She created an Instagram page, Awo’s Kitchen, documenting her homemade Ghanaian meals with whatever she could find in German markets. However, she quickly found that “other food accounts were doing it more professionally, where I was just cooking from instinct and what my mother taught me,” she says. Ackuaku pivoted to amplifying people who already had a large canon of work, such as UK-based chef and blogger Ndudu by Fafa.
Awo’s Kitchen was rebranded to esSense 13, a play on the word essen (“to eat” in German). The project foreshadowed the work she wanted to do, amplifying food stories from the African diaspora and creating immersive experiences online and off.
“A lot of times we only focus on how good the food tastes,” she says. “But I wanted to focus on the other elements and the different senses that make a food experience great.”
With a new name and a new mission, Ackuaku tapped into the continent’s booming tech scene during the Accra Food Hackathon in January 2016, which she planned for months. For three days, brands, chefs, and restaurant owners gathered for community-wide panel discussions and workshops, concluding with a hackathon, where participants brainstormed tech solutions to common issues.
“There was this energy from young people with tech experience, and I wanted to see how we can use technology as a bridge to elevate food tourism,” Ackuaku says.
She was onto something. The first event she held—and the first food hackathon ever on the continent—was standing room only.
Buzzing from the success of the event, Ackuaku was determined to sustain the momentum. When work moved her from Germany to London in 2018, she launched Accra Food Week. Set against a backdrop of vibrant Ankara prints and verdant tropical plants, the event mobilized bloggers, chefs, entrepreneurs, and the public for a week of panel discussions and pop-up dinners. For Ackuaku, the success of Accra Food Week confirmed the need for spaces she was creating.
“It's about amplifying the work of people and having space for these conversations to happen, where people can start collaborating,” she says.
As Ackuaku continued to travel and work with chefs around the world, she wanted a way to preserve the stories she heard. Inspired by the How I Built This podcast chronicling entrepreneurs’ tales of developing well-known brands, she adopted a similar model to celebrate African food stories throughout the world.
“When I go to a restaurant, they're not just putting something together that I can make in my kitchen,” Ackuaku says. “That's a dream behind that. There's a struggle behind that. There’s a culture they’re trying to share with people.”
Ackuaku got to work, naming her podcast "Item 13" (a Ghanaian slang term for food after a party) and tapped on her network for guests. Ackuaku’s interviewing style is delightfully inquisitive and studied, “teasing out parts of their story that they may not think of right away,” she says.
The conversations sometimes take unexpected but enlightening turns. In one episode, Ackuaku and chef Dominique Tolbert discussed her multiethnic Liberian heritage, the historical links between Liberia and the U.S., and the Black Lives Matter movement. Now in its fourth season, "Item 13" has interviewed guests living in three continents and is part of Heritage Radio Network.
As Ackuaku continues to illuminate the textures and depth of the continent’s gastronomy, she’s including stories of the larger Black diaspora with upcoming guests like chef Alain Lemaire, exploring the link between Haitian and West African cuisines. “I’m pulling connections between the diaspora, the continent, and the States, which has been a learning experience,” she says.
While Ackuaku is now based in Seattle, she’s also a founding owner of Dawadawa, an Accra-based restaurant named after the umami-rich, pungent spice used in Ghanaian cooking. “I wanted to have a flagship that embodies the ideals I want to share. It’s an example of what I think an African food experience should be like,” she says. “I think that it should be local. It should honor ingredients. It should create experience and community.”
Dawadawa’s menu celebrates local, seasonal ingredients, and showcases art and music from up-and-coming talent, along with a residency program hosting chefs throughout the continent and diaspora. Ackuaku is also building a website that will include an e-commerce shop, a worldwide directory for African businesses, and educational content.
Ackuaku resigned from her banking job last year to devote herself full-time to the work of centering African food stories. She has no plans to slow down anytime soon, with speaking engagements and working with the UN General Assembly under her belt.
While representation is a big part of her mission—recognizing the nuances of Africa’s cuisines, much like the recent (and long overdue) attention to Asian cuisines—it isn’t a goal unto itself. She wants to take representation further, as a throughway to creating wealth in and out of the continent.
While Ackuaku never envisioned herself leaving corporate life, she knows this work is her purpose.
“There’s so much missing from the global food story, even the American food story,” she says. “Nobody owns this land. We all came from somewhere else, and we need to represent that.”
This story originally appeared on Food & Wine .