Getting Salty with Kwasi Kwaa of The Chop Bar pop-up
Kwasi Kwaa came to the United States from Ghana as an 11-year-old; by 19, he was a sandwich-maker at Hi-Rise Bread Company in Cambridge. He worked his way up to become a kitchen manager and later went on to chef positions at 5 Corners Kitchen in Marblehead and A&B Burgers in Beverly. Now he’s settled into a sous chef career at BG Events and Catering in Allston. He has a busy side career helming The Chop Bar pop-up with co-chef Shelley Nason, serving food from his home country — “soups, stews, a lot of root vegetables, yams, plantains, ginger, fish, goat,” he says. The pop-up began at Roxbury’s Dudley Café; now it appears throughout the area, including at Cambridge’s Parsnip on April 29.
What’s the first restaurant you ever ate at in Boston? There was a stand in the Assembly Square Mall that served shawarma wraps, and my mom owned an African arts and crafts store across the hall. I’d just eat their shawarma all day. I came here when I was 11, and shawarma was such a new thing to me. I still remember the tahini sauce!
What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here? That people forget how much of a team sport being in a restaurant is. I like that restaurants are moving in the direction of employee-owned set-ups. In the pop-up, people see my partner Shelley and me, we’re sous chefs together, and the pop-up is our pet project — but it’s a team sport, and I think sometimes that concept gets lost.
How has the restaurant landscape changed since you arrived in Boston? There’s a lot more diversity in the restaurant landscape. The public is very ready for new tastes, new cuisines, more ethnic foods coming up. Jason Tom at Night Market is doing amazing things with street food, presented creatively. I think a lot of street concepts are being presented creatively without being pretentious. It used to be casual to high-end was always French, Italian. Now you have Thai or Ethiopian held in that regard.
What other restaurants do you visit? Special occasions, my wife and I do Sarma. For just walking up the street and getting a beer and hanging out for an hour or two, we used to live down the street from Daddy Jones, and we’d go all the time. If I’m the neighborhood, the folks at Brassica and Dudley Café are a go-to for us.
What’s your earliest food memory that made you think, ‘I want to work in restaurants?’ In the kitchen working at Hi-Rise, I remember being really excited. We’d do sausage from scratch, pasta for the lasagna we were making that night. It inspired me and made me think, ‘I want to do this in a different setting all the time.’ . . . I was coming from a place where, you know, someone was cooking from cutting the onions to finishing the dish whereas when I came here, I didn’t get to see that as much. When I started working in a professional kitchen, that flipped the switch for me.
What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had? I’m not going to name the restaurant. It still exists. I used to go a lot, and Shelley is not African. I wanted her to try the food. These guys do amazing food, authentic African food, and I wanted her to try it so that when we’re cooking, she’d have a reference point. The service was terrible, absolutely terrible. . . . It was completely empty, nobody was around, but it took 15 minutes to seat us. Then it took another 15 minutes for someone to come and say, ‘Can I offer you menus?’ Menus came, we ordered, and it took another 20 minutes. We’d spent two hours there and hadn’t gotten anywhere, only to be told the beer advertised on the menu wasn’t cold. But the food was as memorable to me as food I’d had in Ghana. . . . There are African places that cater just to African people, not by choice, but they haven’t pushed themselves to go the other route in terms of service. You go to a place that has really, really good food but people turn up their noses because it’s not what they’re used to for service. People don’t come out just for food. If that were the case, they’d cook at home.
How could Boston become a better food city? I think what Boston really needs is a lot more collaboration. There are a lot of amazing, talented chefs, and part of the reason I love doing a pop-up is it gives me a chance to connect with so many different people on a passionate level. The food scene here is great, it’s become extremely diverse, and I just feel like people operate as singular entities for some reason. I think there’s a lot of people trying to make it a more collaborative setting when it comes to combining passions and connecting over different foods. It’s not that it’s not happening, but I think Boston could use more of it.
Name three adjectives for Boston diners. Standard-driven. They have extremely high standards and are quick to call you out on it. Curious. Forgiving. Boston diners are very forgiving. To be hated by Boston diners, you have to have failed several times.
What’s the most overdone trend right now? Foams on a plate. Like I said, I appreciate creative food and presentation, but I think foams are just overdone and, to be absolutely honest, sometimes I don’t understand it.
What are you reading? Currently I’m reading “A Very Serious Cookbook.” That’s the title of the cookbook. Chef Ethan Paige gave it to me. And “Between Harlem and Heaven,” about a restaurateur from New York doing collaborative African diaspora cuisine in creative ways, not just focused on one part of Africa.
How’s your commute? Right now I work for I work for BG events and Catering, and they’re 15 minutes from my apartment. I live in Cambridge. I take the T most of the time, and when it’s warmer, I bike.
What’s the one food you never want to eat again? To be quite honest, I haven’t had that food yet. I’m an extremely adventurous eater, and I’ve had things I don’t like, but I can’t say I’d honestly say, ‘Oh, absolutely not, I will never do this again.’
What kind of restaurant is Boston missing right now? It’s missing a restaurant that’s small enough to build a community around it, a restaurant that’s not just doing food and service, a restaurant that’s involved very heavily in the community. Yes, restaurants employ people in the community, but I think Boston is missing a restaurant taking it a step further to do things outside of food and service to support that community. One of the things I always thought about was doing summer cooking classes for at-risk youth or something like that.
What’s your most missed Boston restaurant? I used to like Chez Henri a lot. I think Cambridge lost something there. I was introduced to it by friends at Hi-Rise.
Who was your most memorable customer? We used to do a pop-up at Dudley Café, and a woman showed up. I can’t remember her name, but she loved our sauce. The next pop-up, she brought a pint container and wanted the sauce to take home. We had a quart left, and we sent her home with it. It was a fish sauce, a fermented fish sauce, shito. A lot of African countries use it. It’s very common in Ghana; we serve it with everything. It’s like our Frank’s Red Hot.
If you had to eat your last meal in Boston, what would it be? Falafel Corner in Harvard Square for lamb shawarma. And ideally I’d go at the usual time I end up at that place — 2 a.m.