Big Daddy’s Restaurant and Oyster Bar
An old school fish camp delivering much more than average fried seafood
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The owner of Eh’vivi showcases the flavors of her home country with fine-dining flair
by Allison Braden
Chef Awo Amenumey started cooking when she was eight years old. Her mother and grandmother were avid cooks at their home in Ghana.
“You never came to my house and left without eating,” she says. “They would stuff you until you couldn’t walk and send you home with more food.”
Amenumey inherited the conviction that cooking was a profound way of caring for the people around her, but she didn’t consider it a career. For a while, she wanted to be a flight attendant but ultimately studied fashion merchandising. Then, she says, “life happened.”
Amenumey came to the U.S. in 2006, when her father, a diplomat, moved to Washington, D.C. Later, Amenumey relocated to Chicago, where she got married. She and her husband spent time in Indiana and Kentucky, where Ghanaian food was not well known. She opened her home to share her culture.
The flavors of Ghana, she says, are bold and bright, and “we like spicy.” She makes frequent use of habanero peppers, as well as spices like calabash nutmeg (whediaba), grains of selim (whentia), coriander, and thyme. Many soups and sauces are built on a base of tomato, onion, and pepper, what Amenumey calls “the trinity.”
Smoked fish is another frequent seasoning that gives dishes a “nice, homey feel.” Amenumey made it her mission to share these flavors with as many people as she could. Eventually, she says, “my husband said, ‘You’re not doing the fashion thing, so why don’t you go to culinary school?’”
She enrolled in the culinary program at a community college. “It was,” she says, “like a whole new world opened to me.” She signed up for every extracurricular opportunity and volunteered at all the dinners and events she could. “I felt like I got in the game late,” she says, “so I wanted to absorb everything.” She didn’t have any restaurant experience, and she hadn’t worked her way up in the industry the way many of her peers had.
She didn’t aspire to work in restaurants. She had young children and didn’t relish a restaurant chef’s long hours. Nevertheless, she learned to run a kitchen and place orders by managing the school’s cafe. She brought her own experience to the table, too. She took a class called International Cuisine, but the syllabus didn’t include any African dishes. Amenumey had a talk with her instructor and, for an internship, developed and taught a course on Ghanaian cuisine.
She graduated at the top of her class and committed to being an ambassador for her culture. “I can cook Mexican food. I can cook Italian. I’m a great cook, but Ghanaian food is what I know,” she says. “It was a no-brainer to use that as an opportunity to bring Ghanaian food to the forefront and be one of the voices of elevating Ghanaian cuisine.”
After culinary school, Kentucky bored Amenumey. “I told my husband we need to move from Kentucky and need a different scenery, a different place,” she says. She wanted more opportunities for her two sons and daughter. “Charlotte,” she says, “was a very happy medium,” somewhere between hectic Chicago and laid-back Kentucky. “You get a lot of city life but with a country feel.”
She moved to Charlotte in 2017 and launched a catering company. Her first customers came from her church community, but word soon spread. A cafe in Mint Hill invited her to host pop-ups.
Her debut event was called Plates of Ghana. All but two of the attendees were friends of hers.
A few months after she started her business, the Compass Group, a national food service company, called to interview her for a job she had forgotten she’d applied for. She became a traveling corporate chef for the company’s health care division, Morrison Healthcare. She would travel for ten days, then come back on weekends and cater events for her own company.
“It was a lot,” she says, “and it began to take a toll — physically, mentally, emotionally.”
In April 2022, she resigned. She rebranded her company as Eh’vivi, which means “tasty” in Ewe, her native language. She developed a chef’s table concept, with four to six courses of elevated Ghanaian dishes. She hosts dinners at Indian Trail’s Nebedaye Farms, where farmer Bernard Singleton’s botanical garden showcases crops from Africa and the diaspora.
Free Range Brewing hosted a dinner with beer pairings, and Amenumey collaborated with the brewery to develop Hello Sobolo, an herbed farmhouse ale with pine flowers, ginger, and hibiscus. (Sobolo is a spiced hibiscus drink popular in West Africa.). She is also doing an “on the farm” dinner at James Swofford’s Old North Farm on May 28.
One of the most frequent questions Amenumey gets from diners new to Ghanaian cuisine is, “How spicy is it?” Amenumey assures that if you go to one of Eh’vivi’s dinners, the spice level won’t knock you flat. She’s tailored her dishes to be “very ‘American’ friendly.” She keeps the flavors true to herself and to Ghanaian tradition but varies the spice quotient, “so it’s inclusive for everyone to actually enjoy the taste of the dish.” She also incorporates familiar local ingredients. “It makes sense to them,” she says. “Like, ‘OK, I’ve had this before but pairing it with a different flavor from Ghana.’”
On the whole, her clients and guests have been receptive. “I feel like the Charlotte culinary scene has come so far now, where people are very open and they’re very willing to try different cuisines,” she says.
She’s learning, too. Before moving here, Amenumey didn’t realize how much Southern and West African cuisines overlapped, a legacy of slavery. Hoppin’ John, for example, reminds her of red red, a Ghanaian black-eyed pea stew. “It’s created an opportunity for me to actually learn my culture in a totally different way,” she says, “seeing my culture from the light of the South.”
She calls the last year a learning process. She is constantly refining her dishes and dinners, but it’s been a process defined by gratitude, “for the people of Charlotte, for being open, and being accepting of my food and my culture.”
Her ultimate goal is to capitalize on her following and exposure to open a fast-casual Ghanaian restaurant.
“I think,” she says, “Charlotte is ready for that.”