Our founder Kiana Estevez sits down with Chef Adrian Kombe to talk about food as a Rosetta Stone and rediscovering your passions after a year on repeat.
Kiana Estevez at Aisle Mine (AM): Hello, Adrian, my name is Kiana, I am so happy to welcome you into the Aisle Mine community. I’d love to kick off and just like, tell me about yourself, like, why would someone want Adrian in their kitchen?
Chef Adrian Kombe (AK): I really got started cooking when I moved out of my mother’s house. I moved to South Africa, interestingly enough, and I just realized that I didn’t have any of the skills necessary to feed myself.
And so, you know, through trial and error, I built this repertoire of the most basic stuff. Then I came home, and lived with my mom for more than a year, and really intensified my skills. Then I went out and got some professional experience, doing catering, and so forth. The combination of all that experience and cooking for myself on a daily basis, is really what leads me to put out great and interesting meals.
I cook for friends, birthdays, and catering experiences. I really like to bring interesting twists on a more standard dishes.
AM: What would you say are three skills that you learn cooking in South Africa, that were not part of your repertoire before?
AK: Number one is sourcing your ingredients from a reputable place. That’s something that I don’t think is emphasized enough in this country. I learned so quickly which markets would have what I needed, and how fresh they were, and also getting to know the people that use the ingredients on a daily basis. They know more than any chef could ever know about the way that it cooks, what temperature should be hitting, should you allow the oil to heat in the pan before you throw it in or not?
It’s the little things. Quality ingredients, go to the direct source because they know how to cook it the best. I would say lastly, develop flavor profiles that correspond well with texture. The food that is cooked in Cape Town, especially cape Malay food, the texture and the flavors work together in unison to build beautiful meals. That’s one of the really great things that I walked away with.
AM: For someone who is learning this for the first time, and is like, ‘What in the world is a flavor profile? I have no idea what this even means?’, Can you tell us a little bit more about that, and just how how it’s grown in your cooking experience?
AK: Flavor profile would be, you know, the amalgamation of the spices, the actual temperature of the food and anything that extends in the in the direction of umami that couldn’t be encapsulated by a dried spice or wet spice.
That’s my understanding of it. I’m sure people have much more profound things to say on flavor profiles, but that’s really how I’ve come to understand it.
AM: I want to take a step back, how do you define real food?
AK: It’s a great question. I think that real food is cooked with intention and with effort. You know, I put effort into my fried eggs. I put effort into my smoothie. The ingredients that I choose, there’s an intention behind each one. So if those two things are there, I think that that’s real food. Real food doesn’t only mean healthy food, doesn’t only mean it takes three hours to cook. It’s food that takes effort and attention to make.
AM: I don’t know If this is just me, but when I make a certain meal and I place like that love and emotion, the people who eat the meal feel it! To give an exact experience, like, I’ve had someone where then they share, you know a story about love, like during the meal or that’s the theme of our conversation. So I’d love to know, have you ever had that kind of experience when you really speak to effort and intention? Because I absolutely agree.
AK: It’s funny that you bring up love. I think that when I cook shakshuka I think that that’s something that evokes a lot of love. It’s such a warm dish physically, but also in color palette, the red dish with eggs on top. And this is not a dish that takes all day to prepare. But it’s just so clear. The intention is so clear about how lay up the eggs, flavors, and it really dictates this kind of communal experience around this dish.
AM: Thank you for bringing shakshuka to the table because in my vocabulary, it is the breakfast of champions. Like it’s all mixed up. To your point, it’s so colorful, it’s so rich. And what I love about the combination is that it takes its’ North African roots and its’ Middle East roots, especially in Israeli culture. It just marinated and became a go to brunch dish, in restaurants in homes.
What’s so important about that point, it goes back to something that you’ve said. When I asked you to define flavor profile, you said ‘there could be a more profound way to say it’. At the end of the day, people just want to eat real food. It’s something uncomplicated, and that’s what shakshuka is.
I don’t know if you knew this, but it was actually served to soldiers in mass portions, it’s actually such a sustainable meal because of its hearty ingredients. Its’ eggs, its’ tomatoes, its’ vegetables in red, it’s an easy option.
AK: That makes a lot of sense.
AM: We can also express that the best part of shakshuka, in my opinion, is that it can be made in one pan.
AK: Most definitely!
AM: There’s always such simplicity when it comes to dishes like shakshuka. Because, you know, you take a step back, and you ask the question of ‘well, how do I dice an onion?’
AK: That’s true! It could be finely chopped, coarsely chopped, what way are you cutting it? Are you, coring the onion? That’s a dish where I do core the onion. For those who don’t know, 30% of the core is much harder than the rest of the outer edges. Shakshuka is one of those dishes where I don’t take the chance of having varied densities of the onion.
AM: Thank you for just bringing your authenticity and speaking to South African cuisine and how it’s now one of your roots. Why do you think it’s important to eat a variety of foods from different cultures.
AK: That’s really the way I was brought up. You know, I had Vietnamese food, my father is Zambian, I had Zambian food. My mother is German, I had German food. So I don’t really know anything else.
Eating a cuisine of a certain certain culture or a certain region is fun. I need variety in my diet, so it’s always been a way of life for me. I think it’s also interesting because you start to learn how different chefs apply effort and intention.
You know, I wasn’t raised in a Korean household, but I can tell you that the way Korean chefs prepare food and display food is second to none. That’s something I really study. They chop this asymmetrical beet root, but every piece looks perfectly displayed. They all look the same.
There’s also another Korean dish, a bibimbap dish. I’ve been studying it, you know, they’re not going to give you the exact recipe for the sauce. But I can tell you it’s made a mayonnaise, mustard seed, black pepper, cayenne pepper. I’m dialing in more and more ingredients each time I taste it. Expanding your vocabulary and deepening your orchestra for what you can cook. That only happens when trying out diverse food.
AM: I hear that. To your point where you come from a mixed background and growing up with that intersectionality, how did food help you express yourself and express those two identities as a person?
AK: Food has really served, like you said, as a way to express the symbol of my mixed heritage. And it’s something that people can understand. They’re not going to understand phrases in Bemba and phrases in German, but they understand ‘Oh, this is a Zamibian Chicken Stew. I understand that they eat this in this culture, and they prepare it like this.’
There’s more of a distillation that can happen when they see the food and how it’s prepared, it provides a little window into the culture. So that’s definitely been useful for my friends understanding me.
AM: I really hear it, how food can really be a translator. To your point where it’s a window, but it is really its’ own Rosetta Stone. That’s such a powerful way to really see the perspective that life brings to food. It’s more than a thread in our nature, it’s how we nurture the relationship with food and our identities.
It’s so powerful, when you when you speak to mixed identities and intersectionality because it’s bringing innovation to the space, because new foods are being born. But they’re not really new foods, they’ve been around for thousands of years, they just haven’t been amplified in the market.
AK: Right. I couldn’t agree with you more. And finally, the chefs of different regionsare finally getting to tell their stories as much as the best Italian and French male/cis/hetero chefs, got to tell their stories.
AM: What are what are some of the challenges that you face being being a chef day to day?
AK: I’ll admit that it’s different not coming from a restaurant background. Catering isn’t so far different. I’ve seen how female caterers are treated, and that stuff is vile. I haven’t had any specific experiences where I felt like my food or my talents are being undervalued. But I’ve seen it enough times to know that there’s a lot that needs to change in this industry.
AM: Tell me more. What are some things you think this industry could do to better help chefs flourish?
AK: Here’s a good one: culinary schools. You know, I think that there should be a quota for minority students. There’s nothing wrong with saying there’s been a disparity between how people of color are educated in culinary arts and white people in this country just allowing for there to be an opportunity for those same students to show their skills, to hone their skills. That’s one of them.
I also think that part of it can be done on the professional side. If people know they want a Jamaican chef in Atlanta, they could look it up and so many things are going to pop up and a million of those things are going to be unrelated. But through your endeavors, I think it’s gonna be easier for people to find their own community.
I think from a professional and educational side, industry and academia need to work hand in hand.
AM: Absolutely, there has to be the incentive like the bonus structure to hit these quotas with students or else it’s not going to change. That’s just the truth, until there’s money on the table or a salary title on the table, why is someone going to give us a piece of their pie? I am in 100% alignment with you there.
And then from the professional side, I hear you. It’s challenging becauseit brings up the question of ‘how does someone even expand their audience outside of Facebook, Instagram, and Tiktok?’ For me social media is like a potato chip. You know, it’s it’s gratifying, right? In that moment, however, we’re providing experiences, we’re providing a whole meal. So it brings to the question of like, how can we use technology to truly expand the talents of a chef and their networks, so they can see that a restaurant is not McDonald’s, or Starbucks?
This also brings up for me, how do you connect with fellow industry peers?
AK: That’s a great question, though. I’ve worked a lot with at home chefs, you know, virtually. No COVID! That has really been inspiring, because each and every day, they get up and cook just like you do. This whole pandemic has been tiring for everybody, and it’s really refreshing to see.
How are people producing beautiful food, even when they feel down even when they don’t have enough time? Even when they’ve been in the same apartment for three days? Where are they getting inspiration from? When I see that my friend is grilling meat outside on his balcony with chimichurri sauce and these are the ingredients that he couldn’t get because there’s only one grocery store you can go to, I think ‘what adaptations to my food can I make and it’ll still be beautiful?’. Where do I need to go to feel inspired when I make food?
AM: In handling that stress in these last 12 months, how has that stress impacted you?
AK: At the beginning of quarantine, I really just laid into food. I really cooked each and every day, three meals a day. I really honed my skill those first three to four months, then I took a step back because I just been cooking so much that it really became not fun.
Now that I’ve moved to Atlanta, Georgia that inspiration is coming back. I’m learning new flavor profiles and learning new ingredients, talking to some restaurants about working on their menus. The pandemic has been a lot of ups and downs but my relationship to food has only grown stronger through this. I can only hope that coming out of this fully vaccinated that it’ll keep growing.