Chris Ekpiken’s signature dish is a mini-biography. Kung POW! Chicken Wings are inspired by Asia, the continent of his favorite cuisine. Joloff [pronounced “jo-LOFF”] Rice comes from Nigeria, his father Chris’ place of birth; and Collard Greens are classic American Southern cuisine— specifically, in his mom Brandie’s case, from New Orleans.
The young chef was one of three finalists in the Food Network’s “Rachael Ray’s Kids Cook Off,” and was selected from a pool of 12,000 applicants. In addition to cooking, Chris enjoys dancing, swimming, playing video games, and going to school at South Arbor Charter Academy in Ypsilanti, where he attends along with his 11-year old sister Sabrina. So he’s busy. Fortunately, he was able to carve out a little time to speak with Ann Arbor Family.
Ann Arbor Family: Can you remember the first thing you ever cooked?
Chris: The first time I started cooking, I was around five. I made scrambled eggs. I like breakfast foods. I liked to get started early in the morning. My mom told me, “You can’t cook before 6:30, you’ll burn the house down.” But now she’s ok with it.
Who were your teachers?
My Aunt Titi—her real name is Chandra—and my mom and dad. I learned knife skills from watching TV. When I started getting into the knives, my mom yelled, “Put your fingers like monkey claws! If you cut your fingers, I won’t let you use a knife!” So I didn’t cut my fingers.
You mentioned in your audition for Rachael Ray that you started cooking because you were getting bullied.
Well, I don’t want to dwell on it, but yeah, people were being really annoying to me, and they kinda made me feel very self-conscious and not want to do anything. So I went into the kitchen and just started cutting carrots and putting them in a frying pan. A nd I went, hey, I like this, it makes me feel good and I love carrots. Broccoli, too. When I was cooking, I was doing something that made me feel good about myself, and the food tasted good, so that was awesome.
You especially love Asian food. Can you remember the first time you had it?
When I was around 7 or 8, we went to a Chinese restaurant in downtown Ann Arbor and I had sesame chicken and fried rice with shrimp. The Kung POW! Chicken that I made in the competition had a kung pao sauce, and I had also had made a mango barbecue sauce. Rachael told me to mix them together and take out the mango pieces, and it turned out really good.
What was Rachael Ray like?
She was nice, very supportive. She didn’t treat us like little babies. She would come up to me and say, “You need to do this right now, or you won’t make it if you don’t get that pot off the stove!” She was really helping us prepare for when you get in a big kitchen with other people.
So it must have been pretty intense.
It was scary. They gave us a series of challenges, and the first one was to make something that describes your culinary heritage in one bite. I made a catfish deviled egg. The fried catfish is from New Orleans, and I just love eggs. I also used Nigerian spices, hot peppers and curry powder.
What’s your advice for young cooks?
Don’t get discouraged if something comes out wrong. You learn more from your mistakes than from your successes. Like my mom and I made these mini apple pies that we rolled with puff pastry. They were getting really big in the oven, and we thought, uh-oh, they’re not supposed to be that big. But then we took a bite and they were really good. The main thing is, you can do it.
To find Chris’s recipe, go to foodnetwork.com and search “ekpiken.”