With rich, spicy stews and a variety of vegetarian-friendly dishes, Ethiopian food is one of Africa’s most famed cuisines. Now, New York City based chef Hiyaw Gebroyohannes’s start-up Taste of Ethiopia (TOE) is helping bring that famous flavor to the masses. TOE’s all-natural line of products features delicious delicacies like kik, split yellow peas with some turmeric and ginger, and gomen, collard greens. It also, of course, features Ethiopia’s famed berbere blend of spices. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng chatted with the up-and-coming chef about how he fell in love with food and his plan to make consumers fall in love with Taste of Ethiopia, too.
You’ve been a fledging political scientist and an actor. Now you’re a chef? How did you arrive here?
The kitchen is where I feel most comfortable. I spent most of my childhood and adolescence in the kitchen at home or at our family’s restaurants, so moving into the culinary world was a natural transition for me.
When was the idea for Taste of Ethiopia born?
After closing the doors of Zereoue, a restaurant I launched and managed in New York City, I traveled around the world for a year, inspired to discover my next calling. Armed with authentic family recipes and a clear vision, Taste of Ethiopia (TOE) was born June of 2011.
I’ve seen your products in Whole Foods, but I know that they appear in a range of grocery and retail outlets throughout New York City. What was the process like of getting stocked?
Timing was everything! A lot of hard work and opportunity met right at the grocer’s door steps. Most people were selling cupcakes and protein bars but no one was selling Ethiopian food, so finding a niche for my products on their shelves was fairly seamless.
What’s your current product range?
We host a range of grab-and-go retail products, including spicy red lentils, collard greens, peanut chicken stew, cabbage, and turmeric potatoes. The brand is sold across the United States by leading retailers, many of which also sell our food in their in-store hot bars, as do select universities.
Do you have any personal favorites?
My favorite is the spicy lentils. I also love co-hosting events on behalf of TOE. It lets me get my hands dirty in the kitchen, make people smile, get creative with food presentation, and create dishes that aren’t available in retail or your run-of-the-mill restaurant.
My Ethiopian friends tell me that true injera must be 100% teff, but it’s difficult to source in large quantities in the US. Is that true? Where do you get your teff? How does injera made with teff differ from injera made from other ingredients?
It can be challenging at times to source teff, but there is more than enough in the US, especially for individual consumers. At the moment my teff supply is sourced from a local farmer in the Midwest. Injera made with teff has much more nutritional benefits than injera without teff. For example, it’s high in iron and fiber, making it easier to digest, and is gluten free.
Your mother has a chain of restaurants. What did you learn from seeing her as an entrepreneur?
At the age of seven, my parents opened their first Ethiopian restaurant in Canada. It was behind the counter and in the restaurant’s kitchen where I became captivated by the exotic spices and flavors of my home land and learned my first lessons in cooking and business. I saw them work many long nights on their feet but the payoff of business ownership was priceless, and that’s what I wanted.
How have you adjusted traditional Ethiopian flavors for American palates?
I’m a creative at heart and like to fuse familiar Ethiopian tastes with fresh flavors people haven’t seen before, complimenting American and other international palates. For example, one of our retail products merges collard greens with cardamom, black pepper, and ajawain, which offers a soulful reinvention of the American favorite. It’s always fun adding a spin on an old favorite.
How big is the Taste of Ethiopia team?
TOE is a small shop, but one that works for the size and culture of our current operations. I work closely with a small team of cooks and a remote kitchen that produces our retail and hot bar products.
What has been your biggest success since your launch? Your biggest challenge?
It’s rewarding when people come up to me in the grocery store and tell me that they tried Ethiopian food for the first time. It reassures the brand’s purpose: to introduce Ethiopian food to the world, as a symbol of our culture.
The biggest challenge is facing stereotypes of what Ethiopian and African food are. I’m continuously trying to find ways to do that by merging traditional tastes with modern influences, aesthetic, and twists.
Do you have any plans for expansion?
In the next few years, I’d like to expand the brand to include dry food products such as hot sauces, honey, and nuts. Success to me means producing these products in Ethiopia as a means of job creation among local farmers and manufacturers. Ultimately, we’d like to expand TOE into international markets in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
What advice do you have for food entrepreneurs?
Most startup food entrepreneurs ask me the same question: “How do I get my product into Whole Foods?” They completely overlook the smaller retailers. My advice is to pace themselves. Start by crawling, then walking. They’ll have given themselves the time to flush out their branding and product, and by not diving in head first, they’ll learn so many valuable business lessons that will better prepare them.