[cleeng_content id="381891521" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]West African chef to bring unique tastes to Shepherdstown expo this weekend
CHARLES TOWN – Vera Anthony got her wish when she was 7, but she didn’t remember the day it was granted until many years later, on the day she graduated from L’Ecole Hotelier Touquet Paris Plage, a culinary school in France.
She said when she was 7 her grandmother filled a dried calabash – a gourd used as a bowl – with water. Her grandmother ran her hands through the water and told Anthony to make a wish. She wished for a restaurant.
“She said, ‘The gods accept your wish, so you’re going to have this,’” Anthony says.
Today, Anthony runs Keta Couronne, a thriving business, out of a corner of the old Jefferson Cold Storage facility selling West African-style smoked chicken and fish. She ships more than two tons each week to cities throughout the country where populations of West African expatriates yearn for a distinctive taste of home.
This Saturday, Anthony will offer samples of several new smoked fish and meat dishes that she hopes will be more suited to the American palate.
“We have fish and chicken for the African community now and we are trying to go into the American market,” Anthony said. “I came from West Africa to West Virginia. I want to put these things together and make something good.
“This is a test to see if people like it. If they do, then we will try to go into the American market.”
Steeped in both West African and French culinary traditions, Anthony thinks she has developed a good understanding of Americans tastes.
“African food has a lot of spices – a lot of spices,” she explains. “We eat things fresh or dried.”
Saturday she will offer some dishes that feature a traditional spice mixture called “papapa,” which includes spicy chiles and the ground seeds of a West African fruit.
“European food is a little sophisticated,” she adds. “They don’t eat a lot [in one course], but they eat several things.”
To highlight this tradition, Anthony will offer meats spiced with “herbes de provence,” a blend of 10 herbs iconically used in southern French cuisine.
“Americans like something that has a mix of salty and sweet that is just right,” she says.
She says she added brown sugar and other ingredients to the dishes she is tailoring to American tastes.
“And Americans like dipping things,” she laughs. “Saturday, you’re going to dip!”
Anthony has lived a life centered on food, spending five years in French culinary school and cooking in London and Provence before opening three restaurants in the Ivory Coast.
“All my life has been in food,” she said.
Anthony was born in the small village of Keta, Ghana on a thin peninsula between the Atlantic Ocean and the Keta Lagoon. She said her grandmother, who she lived with for several years, was a great cook who provided her with many of the lessons she would use throughout her career as a chef.
“I started with my Grandma,” she says. “My Grandma was a very good cook.”
Anthony’s grandparents made their living from the ocean, bringing in a daily catch of fish, and selling what fresh fish they could that day. Unsold fish had to be preserved to be sold later, and the preferred method was smoking.
“Before, and even now in some villages in Africa, they don’t have a cooler or a freezer. So to preserve meat, they smoke it very dry so they can preserve it. Then they make a soup. You don’t eat it dry. You need to put it in a soup so that it becomes soft, and it seasons the soup.”
These soups made with heavily smoked chicken and fish are an important part of cuisine in Ghana, Togo and the Ivory Coast, and provide many West African immigrants living in America with a taste of home.
“That’s the way they like it,” she said. “Even here where there are freezers they still want to eat it like this because they are used to it.”
Before coming to the United States in 2003, Anthony worked at restaurants in London and Provence and later opened three establishments in the Ivory Coast, all named Calabash, in remembrance of the wish she made as a young girl.