After living in Charlotte for more than 20 years, Ramona Young, owner of the Kente Kitchen and program coordinator for the Eagle Streets Market Development Corp., found herself starting over in Asheville. That change steered her from a corporate career path into food entrepreneurship. Her catering business, Kente Kitchen, specializes in Liberian, Nigerian and Ghanaian cuisine.
Mountain Xpress: Tell me a little about your background.
Ramona Young: I’m from the Piedmont area — Salisbury, North Carolina — but my family moved here when I was 11. I graduated from Asheville High and then attended UNC Charlotte where I studied psychology. I also received a culinary degree from Community Culinary School of Charlotte in 2004 but was kind of a food snob and realized I didn’t want to work long hours standing in a kitchen, so I entered the corporate world and worked as an account manager for GE. After my grandmother passed away, I moved back to Asheville in 2012 to help with her estate. It was a different world here. I found myself working at the Asheville Mall. I couldn’t find a corporate job. I knew I had to do something else if I was going to stay here. I kept planning escapes, but for some reason, I kept ending up back here. I decided I had to have my own business. I enrolled in A-B Tech’s entrepreneurship program, and that really opened doors. I started working on becoming a caterer and launched the Kente Kitchen at the Goombay Festival in 2014. I had two gas-burning grills and a tent, and that was it. It was an experiment to see how people would respond. Word started getting out. The rollout was good.
Who are your clients?
Right now I focus mostly on festivals such as Folkmoot, African-American Cultural Festival, Goombay, etc., and business events. As my reputation builds, I hope to do more events such as weddings, etc. You can call me for anything.
Where do you get your recipes?
Several years ago, my husband-to-be was killed in a car accident. He was Liberian, and he brought his mother over from there, and she and his aunts and sisters taught me how to cook these fantastic dishes. It’s funny because he loved American food, but I wanted to cook Liberian food. I fell in love with this West African cuisine, and I could only get it if I could cook it. So, when I was thinking about a catering business, I felt this was not only a great way to get to cook food I loved but would also honor my fiancé while introducing a new cuisine to the area. I cook Liberian, Nigerian and Ghanaian dishes – mostly French-inspired dishes.
You use a lot of unusual ingredients. Where do you find them?
I have to go to Atlanta for things like boney fish and cassava leaves, so market price varies. Some regular menu items include egusi soup prepared with melon seeds; fufu, a staple of West African cuisine, often made with cassava and green plantain flour; and toborgee, a fish and bean stew.
What’s one of your favorite dishes?
I’m a real foodie. I have a long list. I guess I’m a real meat-and-potatoes girl. Oh, and macaroni and cheese and collard greens and — OK, let’s just have a huge African-Southern feast!
Do you think there’s a niche here for the cuisine that you’re doing?
Yes. There are not enough ethnic choices in the area. I was excited to see the Caribbean-inspired Calypso open recently. We need more places like that.
Plans for the future?
I hope to build the business. I’m researching a retail space and working on getting funding in place for that now. I’m seeking all the support I can get.