Ghanaian's culinary odyssey leads to running Kyoto eatery

by Gary Tegler

KYOTO — Tucked away in the quiet neighborhood of Nishikyogoku in Kyoto is Ashanti, one of the Kansai region’s finest, if least-known, international restaurants.

Offering primarily African cuisine, the menu is exotic to say the least — ostrich steak, kangaroo stew, tahini and an assortment of other savory dishes, many of them original.

As a boy on his father’s cocoa plantation in the south of Ghana, proprietor Ken Kofi was often mesmerized by the wonderful smells emanating from his mother’s kitchen. When relatives gathered, the women would confide in him how envious they were of her culinary skills.

These early memories would subtly weave themselves into a career that has taken him all over the world as an accomplished chef.

His career began in the port town of Takoradi in Ghana. Working as a gardener at the Atlantic Hotel after a brief stint as a cocoa agent, Kofi was told one day to go help in the kitchen.

“I always had this desire to smell good food and to taste things,” Kofi said. “I quickly accepted and became a kitchen cleaner for three months. After that time, they had to retire me or employ me officially. There was an ad on the hotel notice board for people to become waiters, and since I didn’t like what I was doing, I applied. It was the right timing and I was accepted.”

In 1975, Kofi moved to the capital Accra, where he trained at a catering school for two years. Dividing his time between the city’s two finest hotels, he quickly learned the ins and outs of organizing banquets.

“In Accra, there were many banquets at the state house,” Kofi said. “It was a military regime at the time. At any state banquet, I was selected. Though I hadn’t been to cooking school, I got to know my way around a kitchen and learn basic cookery in order to explain the dishes to the guests. We did a lot of flambeing in front of the customers, such as chateaubriand and crepes suzette. That was not cooking per se, but performance cooking.”

Coming from a small town, life in the capital was exciting for Kofi. He studied and worked five days a week and spent his spare time enjoying city life.

However, after two years, management problems at his school forced Kofi to return to Takoradi, where he resumed work at the Atlantic Hotel. Being a port, the city was host to merchant seamen from all over the world. Kofi was befriended by the captain of the Greek ship Majorie Y, who insisted that he join his crew.

“I didn’t even have a passport at the time,” he said. “I got one after three days and became the chief steward. I was with them for a year when the ship was sold, and then began working on another ship of the same company out of Piraeus.”

Kofi spent most of his time in the North Atlantic with what he describes as “memorable” visits to Poland, Denmark and Sweden.

In 1980, tiring of life on the high seas, Kofi went to Algiers, where friends had told him he might find work. It was through a fellow Ghanaian employed as a chef for the Ghanaian ambassador that he landed a position with first the Gabon ambassador and then the British ambassador.

“My actual cooking training began with the British ambassador’s wife, who was Danish,” Kofi recalled. “But after a year, the ambassador had to retire. I returned to the Gabon ambassador and then went to the home of the U.S. ambassador, Michael Newlin. Life was good and I felt important. I had the chance to work not only at my employer’s home but whenever there were parties.”

When Newlin left Algeria in 1985, Kofi applied for a position with the Gabon Embassy in Madrid and was immediately accepted, his reputation having preceded him. There, Kofi said, he felt more at home as he had not learned Arabic in Algiers but took easily to Spanish, one of five languages he now speaks.

Two years later, he met his wife-to-be, a young Kyoto woman who attended the same language class. They moved to Kyoto in 1990 and within a month Kofi was working as a chef at Cous Cous, an African restaurant run by a friend of his brother-in-law in Uji, Kyoto Prefecture.

With the support of his family, Kofi opened Ashanti in 1992 in Nishikyogoku and has been operating it ever since. Although well off the beaten path, Kofi has managed to keep the restaurant going, altering the menu to suit his customers.

“I am not cooking anything that I had on the menu at my embassies,” he said. “The menu comes from observing the clientele and deciding what might be suitable for them. There are things that are suitable for Westerners’ and Japanese tastes, but some are originally Ghanaian dishes. These incorporate my mother’s flavor and style.”

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