The sky was gray and the air cold — it was the type of weather that made you want to stay inside and never come out. The rain fell steadily outside of the small coffee shop. Inside, sequestered to the side, sat a woman sporting black, mauve, and amber braids. When Awo Amenumey noticed me, she smiled and greeted me with a warm hug, chasing away the outside chill. It was our first time meeting.
“I made you some cookies,” she said.
I noticed for the first time the small box with a clear lid that sat on the table in front of her. Inside, there were red cookies generously dusted with powdered sugar — she later told me they were red velvet crinkle cookies to which she added freeze-dried strawberries and coconut. I took a seat and opened the box to try the cookies.
They were delectable, each bite a cloud of bliss that melted in my mouth. I told her as much and she offered a warmhearted thanks with a smile.
Amenumey didn’t always intend to be in the culinary field, but after those cookies, it quickly became clear to me that she ended up right where she belongs. And as good as those cookies were, they’re not even her specialty.
Through her catering and pop-up business Eh’Vivi Ghanaian Cuisine, Amenumey is on a mission to introduce people to her native Ghanaian cuisine.
“My goal is to just bring Ghanaian food to the forefront of the culinary scene through culture,” she said. “I just share my culture through food. That’s the purpose of what I do.”
While Amenumey doesn’t have a brick-and-mortar restaurant just yet, she has been moving forward with her goal, reaching countless folks throughout the Charlotte area and beyond through Eh’vivi, which means “tasty” in the Ghanaian language, Ewe.
The way she describes it, the idea of starting her own business was almost an afterthought.
“One or two people have told me my food is good, so I’m like, it’s fitting, and I wanted to pay some kind of homage to where I’m from,” she said.
Having launched in 2022, Eh’Vivi does pop-ups and catering events throughout the Charlotte area. Based out of her home in Concord, Amenumey wants to eventually open a traditional restaurant.
In the meantime, she’s making moves to challenge people’s palette.
“I would love a brick-and-mortar,” she said. “So this is working towards a brick-and-mortar. Just getting the client base, getting the fan base, and then, when all the stars align into a brick-and-mortar, it’ll be, hopefully, a smooth transition.”
I told her that as long as those cookies are on the menu, she’d be successful.
Tradition in every dish
From a young age, Amenumey recalled cooking frequently for her family. She lived in a multigenerational household where cooking and eating were a means of connecting with each other, establishing a sense of togetherness. She began cooking at the young age of 7.
“It was one big, old family, and no one came to my house and left without taking away food,” she said. “It was the same on both sides of my family; whether I was with my dad’s side or my mom’s side of the family, it was something that I grew up around all the time. So, I don’t know how not to. No one comes to my home and does not eat, or leaves without taking something. I get offended.”
Despite cooking and fellowship being so ingrained in her, a culinary career was not Amenumey’s first inclination. When she first moved to the United States 17 years ago, she went to school for fashion merchandising.
“My dad was a diplomat, and so that was how we relocated here,” she said. “I did not think or even have the slightest imagination that I would be in the culinary industry. Being a chef was not something I wanted to be growing up; I didn’t think it was an option.”
“Life became life,” as Amenumey put it, and she left school before completing her course load. She later went into hospitality, but only thought of it as a stepping stone — a gig to get her by while she awaited her next big move.
As it turned out, her next big move was marriage. She had children and ended up in Kentucky with her new family, attending West Kentucky Community and Technical College (WKCTC). It was there that she finally began to explore cooking as a career, thanks in large part to her husband, who regularly dropped hints that she should give it a try.
“He’s always been putting the idea in my mind to go to culinary school, because I was always inviting people by the house, cooking for people,” she said.
She enrolled in the culinary program after speaking with the director there, who informed her that she could complete the program in two years. She completed it in a year and a half.
The experience was a life-changing decision for Amenumey.
“It was like a whole new world opened up for me,” she said. “When I started culinary school, I loved it.”
Amenumey became hungry for real-world experience, volunteering with friends who worked in the culinary industry and applying for any position that opened up that she could fit in.
“I took that as an opportunity to learn the industry, so to speak, through education,” she said. “So I would volunteer for any opportunity.”
That drive paid off. Just as she was preparing to graduate from WKCTC, the school was readying a new cafe to open. She worked an internship, and upon graduation landed a job as manager at the cafe, given to her by the same culinary director she had spoken with about entering the program 18 months earlier.
Amenumey ran the cafe for six months before moving to Charlotte.
As she began to think more about a culinary career and her own path, she kept returning to a certain underrepresentation she had noticed throughout her time in America.
“When I came to the US, I didn’t really see Ghanaian food,” she said. “I’ve [eaten] Chinese food, but all I knew was Ghanaian food. So when I came to the US, you see Mexican, Italian, Indian all over the place. I’m like, ‘Where’s Ghana? We have good food.’ I don’t see any,” she recalled.
“I mean, you see a few African restaurants here and there, but nothing mainstream. So I am not thinking of this as a career. It was just my way of, ‘Hey, come try the food from my country. It’s really good.’”
Still a mother to young children upon graduation, Amenumey didn’t want to work in a traditional kitchen with crazy hours. She started her first catering company in 2018, then took a job as a traveling sous chef the next year.
By spring of 2022, she realized she had fallen right into the trap she was trying to avoid.
“I was at a different place every week,” she said. “I got to meet new people, share my experience, learn something from them as well, and vice versa,” she recalled. “And when I come home, weekends or whenever it is, I’d still be doing catering and it was a lot. I was burned out. So last year, April, I wanted to move my business in a different direction.”
She rethought her approach and launched Eh’Vivi Ghanaian Cuisine, providing local residents with a culinary portal to her homeland while providing herself with the time she needed with her family.
A natural born caretaker
Awo Amenumey loves to feed people. That much was evident from the moment I met her and she offered me, someone she had never met before, a home-cooked treat.
“I don’t care who it is, I’m feeding you. Cooking has always been a way of bringing people together,” she told me. “When I was growing up, it was dinner time when all the kids got around the big old bowl, and everybody eating from the same bowl. It was community, it was camaraderie. It was a way of sharing with each other. That’s how I cook when I’m hosting dinners. It’s a way of inviting people into my life and sharing a little bit of me, a little bit of my culture, welcoming them into my abode.”
While her most common form of introduction comes in the form of her favorite dish, groundnut soup with rice balls, she invites people into her life in other ways.
In addition to the pop-ups, she regularly updates a journal on her website, detailing different types of food from her culture for anyone to read.
She also created her own brand of granola called BisKrunchies, which is where the cookies come in.
“BisKrunchies is my baby,” she said.
Much like Eh’Vivi, Amenumey launched BisKrunchies to fill a void; there are very few Black granola businesses around.
Under BisKrunchies, she implemented several different flavor combinations.
In addition to the cookies she baked for me, she talked about her “jazzy granola cookie,” which has fruits, nuts, milk chocolate, dark chocolate, and white chocolate baked into it.
“I call it an oatmeal raisin cookie on steroids,” she said.
She also mentioned her other flavor profiles, each sounding as devourable as the next.
“I’ve had goat cheese lemon cookies,” she said. “I’ve had goat cheese maple pecan. I had peaches and cream. I had espresso caramel, which has now become a staple because it was so popular with espresso with caramel chips … The cookie flavors just keep evolving.”
Amenumey’s cookies may sound unconventional, but that’s the draw — at least she hopes so.
“My hope is for people to come to a warm and inviting space,” she said. “I just hope for people to come with an open mind, an expecting mind to learn about a new ingredient that they’ve never tried before, learn about a dish that they might have not had before.”
She said she doesn’t want to plan on stopping at the local level with her cuisine, as expansion is already on her mind once she can open a brick-and-mortar restaurant. In fact, in December she’ll return to Ghana to host a collaborative pop-up event, Eh-Vivi x Crescendo, on Dec. 15, followed by a ladies’ brunch on Dec. 16.
“I thrive on collaboration, and I feel like we win big when we collaborate,” she said.
While she’s a regular collaborator with local Bennu Gardens founder Bernard Singleton, with whom she hosts dinners at Nebedaye Farms, Singleton’s property in Indian Trail, she has finished all of her pop-ups and catering events in the United States this year.
She promises to be back for more next year, and possibly open that restaurant she’s been thinking about since launching her business.
When we left, she gave me another hug and I complimented her fabulous gray coat, anticipating the chill. Outside, the rain had stopped, though, and the sun was coming out, perhaps anticipating a bright future for Chef Awo.
It’s a future she’s patient for, as she knows what has come before has made her ready for what she faces today.
“I would say it’s fate and purpose,” she said. “That’s why I’m doing what I do.”
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