Out of Africa

Photographs by Thomas McGovern

François Kwaku-Dongo – the man behind the seasonal American menu at the eleven14 Kitchen at Greenwich’s new J House hotel – is a French-influenced chef who grew up on a cocoa farm on West Africa’s Côte d’Ivoire and climbed the culinary ladder under the watchful eye of Wolfgang Puck. Yet despite creating an inspired cuisine drawing on his childhood home, travels and stints at marquee restaurants in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Greenwich, François still insists the food he has best mastered is homemade pasta. Go figure.

Prior to taking up the whisk at eleven14 Kitchen, the James Beard-nominated chef served as executive chef at another French-based Greenwich restaurant, L’escale. At both restaurants, he has maintained the same philosophy of pure basic cooking that relies on high-quality, sustainable, seasonal ingredients; locally sourced meats and intriguing spices. Expect rarefied versions of marinated tuna carpaccio, spicy prime beef tartare, roasted local beet and artisan Burrata salad, flat noodle pasta with lobster, duck sausage pizza, roasted smoked pork chop and simple roasted chicken.

Puckish

Though he came to New York in 1981 at age 23, François has stayed true to the food lessons first learned in his native country.

Growing up, he says, “My mother was the greatest influence in my life as far as a cook.” He remembers eating “mostly West African staples – a lot of stews, what they call here surf and turf, a lot of meats and shellfish cooked together, served with either a bowl of rice or pounded root vegetables like bananas and yams. …We eat very seasonal stuff and the emphasis is less on cooking technique and more on the influence of spices,” he says, listing curry, chili paste, wet chili and ground peppers as standards.

The Greenwich resident, who continues to make trips with his wife and two children to his homeland, recalls going to the market where vendors would offer all kinds of new foods to try. He still appreciates growing up close to the farms his dinners would come from. Yet despite his young foodie fascination, François’ cooking experience didn’t take off till he crossed the Atlantic.

“When I moved here, I had never cooked professionally before and my first job was actually working in an Italian restaurant on the Upper East Side. A friend of mine had a connection with a chef named Francesco Antonucci, who had Remi restaurant. I started with him as a night cleaner.”

“Francesco gave chances to a lot of people in the kitchen, and I was one of the lucky ones who got connected to the young chef he brought from Italy, and he showed me how to make sauces and eventually I learned to cook pasta the way Francesco wanted to have it,” says François, who ultimately became sous chef at Remi.

While working at Remi, François befriended a co-worker named Klaus, who was studying hotel management at Cornell University.

“We became very, very good friends and he started telling me about his brother in Los Angeles, Wolfgang Puck,” says François, laughing, “I didn’t know who Wolfgang was or who Julia Child was. I was just a young African guy who was making spaghetti in New York so I didn’t really worry about who these people were.”

Yet in 1988, François was sent to Los Angeles to meet with Wolfgang and work as a trainee on what just happened to be the night of the Academy Awards.

“So I get to Los Angeles and it’s 80 degrees and there are palm trees everywhere – such a contrast from New York – and at the time I said, ‘Okay, for a young African kid this is where paradise is.’”

Soon after, Francesco gave his consent to let the young François move to Los Angeles to work as a pasta cook at Spago. For the record, critic Ruth Reichl, editor-in-chief of the late, lamented Gourmet magazine, credits François with introducing California to artisan pasta.

“Wolfgang would come to me and he’d say, ‘Okay, Francois, will you make a little risotto for Sean Connery? Will you make a little risotto for (Sidney) Poitier?’ (Celebrities) would come say ‘hello’ to me and I got to know a lot of them. After I worked at Spago for three or five months, I became the sous chef.

“In that process, the chef that Wolfgang had, had to be moved to another restaurant and so then within six months, I became the chef of one of the best restaurants in America. But before I took that position Wolfgang sent me to France.”

It was François’ three-month-long formal traveling and cooking education that would have a lasting effect on his cooking methods and presentations.

“Because I spoke the language before, it was easier for me. But as a culinary professional, it was very, very eye-opening, because what I’m trying to do here (at eleven14) is about finding the best ingredient and doing the least with it, and that’s what I learned in France. They don’t transform the product. The technique that they have keeps the integrity of the product and gives you the best dishes they can find with the product.”

Soon after, François was named a partner and opened Spago in Chicago, which he ran for eight years.

“It was the first time I was away from L.A. and representing Wolfgang away from him. It was tremendous responsibility. I was probably 36 or 37. I became the Wolfgang Puck of Chicago and there I got to meet Oprah, Michael Jordan and all these people who’d come and patronize me. They were proud to see me in the position I was in with Wolfgang trusting me.”

With the face of the game changing in the restaurant industry, François grins as he talks about his unique experience of being an African chef getting the thumbs-up from African-American legends like the late Whitney Houston and Miles Davis throughout his career. (Davis loved his pasta so much that he presented François with five sketches).

The chocolate factor

Despite his prominence at Wolfgang Puck, a personal mission and business plan inspired him to break away – “I started a chocolate company.”  It’s called Omanhene, which means “paramount chief.”

“He’s the person who decides what is right and what is wrong. He is the depositor of the truth.”

“A friend of mine built a factory in Ghana where they use the cocoa from the farm and transform it into chocolate in the country of origin. It’s important, because I grew up on a cocoa farm. My grandfather had the cocoa farm and I picked cocoa growing up and we turned it into dried cocoa beans. But I never knew what became of the bean, because we were exporting it overseas to America, France or Belgium to turn into chocolate.

“When I was with Wolfgang in L.A. during the Academy Awards, they would do a statue in chocolate and Wolfgang would buy probably $10,000 worth of chocolate to melt into the mold. So I thought, if I were to build a chocolate company and make my own chocolate and it was good enough, maybe Wolfgang and all the chefs in America would buy my chocolate. I didn’t want it to just benefit me but the farmers who grow the raw material, with no middleman.”

This goal remained key in François’ decision to become eleven14’s executive chef. Omanhene supplies J House’s kitchen and forthcoming Chocolate Lab.

“The emphasis is on quality rather than quantity. And the star is the person who grows and takes care of the beans,” he says, adding that at eleven14 he aims to “show where cocoa was picked, how it is transformed into chocolate blocks and then how it comes here and is served in Greenwich as a chocolate dessert.”  He motions toward the exposed pastry station beside the bar, giving a friendly wave.

Pastry chef Didier Berlioz uses cocoa sourced from Chef François’ farm to create wonderful spins on desserts like the eleven14, a knock-your-socks-off layered chocolate cake, velvety truffles and chocolate coffee chiffon, in addition to novelties like goat cheese pink peppercorn gelato and zucchini flower napoleon.

“Joining J House was about being able to create a restaurant with great food the way that Wolfgang and Francesco taught me,” François says. “But I wanted to add a chocolate element because of where I came from.”

Try Chef François Kwaku-Dongo’s menu at Eleven14 Kitchen at the J House, 1114 E. Putnam Ave., Greenwich. Call (203) 698-6999 for reservations.

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