Chef Chauncy Yarngo is remaking Liberian food one dish at a time.
When Casey Lenton decided to try out his former co-worker’s Liberian fusion pop-up restaurant — aptly named West African Fusion — he was skeptical. He’d never had Liberian or West African food before.
“I figured, man, you know, it was worth it for me to try it out at least once,” said Lenton.
Five courses later, he was hooked.
Lenton’s friend, Chef Chauncy Yarngo is a San Francisco based chef who is making his name in the food world as a Liberian chef with a twist. By combining his culinary training with his Liberian upbringing, Yarngo, 31 creates innovative fusion dishes that flip West African food onto its head.
“I cannot be a chef and live here and make my country’s food exactly like they do back home,” says Yarngo about his food. “I’m going to leave the Liberian food to the chef in Liberia.”
Yarngo uses traditional West African ingredients, such as palm oil and cassava, and ingredients from other cuisines, such as quinoa and tofu, to create Liberian inspired fusion dishes as well as healthier versions of traditional Liberian meals.
Hot Cassava Leaf Dip (a cassava leaf dip reminiscent of spinach dip served with cassava chips), Plantain Spinach Ring Appetizer (fried plantains, spinach, and gouda topped with avocado, a poached egg and cilantro dressing), and most recently gluten free “Torsava” Tacos (tacos made with cassava based tortillas) are just a few examples of his creations.
“It was something new within the West African culture; the way he took everyday food and turned it into something else,” says Sammed Okyme about Yarngo’s food. Okyme is the owner of Kings and Queens African Cuisine, a Philadelphia based restaurant that specializes in traditional West African food. Kings and Queens hosted the pop-up for its Philly debut.
Born in Liberia, Yarngo says that he was introduced to cooking by his grandmother. He would visit her during school breaks in the Kpele village where she lived outside of the country’s capital, Monrovia. There she taught him how to fish, grow rice, harvest bananas and yams, and how to make fufu – a traditional West African dish made of the tuber root cassava.
In the early 2000’s there was a resurgence of fighting in the ongoing civil war and Yarngo fled Liberia. He joined his father who was already in the neighboring Ivory Coast and the two eventually moved to the U.S. to a Virginian town just outside of Washington D.C. They lived there together until Yarngo graduated from the Culinary Institute of Virginia in 2007.
After bouncing around from city to city and even spending a few years cooking on a cruise ship, Yarngo found himself in San Francisco working as a breakfast chef at Facebook in 2014. It was through that job that he said his beliefs about cooking and healthy eating really transformed.
“I had to learn all, everything, about the San Francisco lifestyle of eating healthy,” says Yarngo about his time as a chef at Facebook.
Now, along with trying to appeal to a broader audience, Yarngo also emphasizes healthy eating with his recipes.
“Every ingredient is created consciously so that there’s not any unnecessary things that’s not good for our bodies,” says Chef Brittany Horne, a friend of Yarngo’s who worked as his sous chef at his pop-ups on the east coast.
He uses only fresh herbs, fruits and vegetables, and stays away from processed seasonings, and buys organic when he can. Instead of cooking everything together in a stew as traditional Liberian cooking demands, he cooks everything separately to maintain the taste and the integrity of the ingredients.
In contrast, Liberian food and West African food in general have a reputation for being heavy, starch filled and overloaded with processed spices. Portions are large and plates are filled to the brim with heaping mounds of rice topped with meats cooked to a crisp and vegetables stewed beyond recognition.
“The lettuce is cooked. The tomatoes are cooked,” says Yarngo about the traditional Liberian food that he grew up eating. “There’s no healthy eating when it comes to Liberian food.”
Liberia is a country ravaged by years of civil war and torn apart by the 2014 Ebola crisis. The majority of the population lives in extreme poverty and eleven percent of children suffer from malnutrition. Access to healthy food is a real concern.
Yarngo hasn’t been back to Liberia since he left as a child but he said he wants to change the culture around food from the inside by bringing what he’s learned about nutrition, healthy eating, and the culinary arts back to his home country. One of his dreams is to open a fine dining restaurant in Monrovia.
Currently Yarngo’s customers are young diasporic Liberians as well as non-Liberians looking for a food adventure. The older more traditional Liberians with stronger roots in their home country haven’t been very receptive he said.
He says that even his father prefers to stick to traditional plates, rather than eat Yarngo’s take on the cuisine.
Yarngo says he’s motivated by the challenge however.
“I had to take that challenge on. Even though I knew that I wasn’t going to get a lot of support from my own people,” he says.