Meet Adé Carrena

Chef & entrepreneur Adé Carrena is bringing Beninese cuisine to the forefront through experiences, products and more

Adégnimika (Adé) Carrena carries many titles

Founder and head chef of Dounou Cuisine, co-founder of The Kayayo Collective, entrepreneur, mother, sister, and daughter – but she describes herself as a storyteller. Adé uses her skills and knowledge as a chef to share the story of her culture and heritage with others. The forging of this culinary narrative finds its beginning with Adé’s search for her own identity.

Born in Porto-Novo, Benin, Adé was adopted at the age of 10 by a Puerto Rican family and moved to the small town of Trumbull, Connecticut. As an African living in a predominantly white suburb, Adé experienced racism for the first time. From adolescence, she struggled to find her identity amongst a multitude of distinct cultures. But when Adé returned to Benin as an adult, not only did she reunite with her biological mother, but also with the flavors of her childhood.

Before she returned to Benin, she didn't remember the names of dishes

She only remembered aromas and textures. She recalled the hug she felt from the garlic and ginger simmering in a tomato base of Omisagwe, a Beninese groundnut soup. She remembered her mother making Atassi, a Beninese version of rice and beans, for breakfast. Returning to Benin, she spent time learning how to cook — and love — her ancestral foods.

“I hated cooking as a kid. But when I understood that food was so much more than making something edible, that you could create intentional experiences that evoke certain emotions, I fell in love with food."

After returning to the U.S., Adé was inspired to help more people experience Beninese cuisine. 

Afer a challenging start in hospitality, entrepreneurship became an avenue for expression

Her initial experiences as a Black woman in food were challenging.

“The traditional hospitality environment can be quite abusive and very unhealthy. Being a line cook, I served for long hours and that became exhausting. I needed to find a way to build something comfortable for me that did not take away my value as a person.”​

When she started working at The Study, a restaurant at Yale University, she was exposed to a different version of the culinary industry.

At The Study, guests did not just view food as a form of sustenance but as an entire dining performance. There, Adé conceived the idea that she could share her story and her home, through unique food experiences outside the restaurant setting. 

She decided to leave the traditional hospitality industry to create authentic dining experiences that showcase her neo-West African cuisine.

Through her businesses, Adé tells stories, uplifts women and celebrates Beninese cuisine

This culinary storytelling has not always been straightforward, however, with some ingredients difficult to source in the States. For instance, Sodabi is a Beninese liquor made from distilled palm wine commonly consumed before meals. Since Sodabi is difficult to import, Adé has had to improvise, creating a watermelon gazpacho that mirrors the spiciness of Sodabi. In that way, she emulates the creativity and resilience of her ancestors by applying West African cooking methods to what is accessible in the U.S.

While developing Wa Mi Dounou, Adé launched iLéwa, a Beninese packaged food brand that sources directly from women entrepreneurs in Benin. The inaugural product line includes two suya spice blends that demonstrate her unique take on the popular West African blend. For example, the Coffee Suya Rub is a playful combination of her Puerto Rican and Beninese roots. 

Alongside Chef Samantha Kotey, Adé also created The Kayayo Collective, a collaborative that tells the stories of women across Africa through authentic dining experiences. We at Adá had the pleasure of co-curating a Mothe’s Day pop-up with them in 2021.

“I found that Beninese cuisine and Beninese women needed representation. As a mother myself, I needed my daughter to know about Benin. So my work is very much rooted in representing the women who upload my culture and traditions.”

Most recently, Adé is working to launch a food truck in Charlotte, NC that serves authentic Beninese street food. She hopes to bring Black-eyed pea fritters, fried yams, and mashed plantains to the forefront of food culture in the U.S.

Adé's culturally diverse upbringing is her superpower​

Over the years, Adé has grown to appreciate the multiplicities of her hybrid identities and her ability to live within the middle ground. Her unique experience informs her approach to fusing diverse culinary traditions and celebrating her home.

“A friend introduced me as: 'If Benin were a person, this would be her.' And that moment just made me so proud because Benin is such a tiny country that almost no one has heard of. I'm very proud to be able to be a bridge between cultures.”

Learn to cook Beninese peanut stew with Adé on our marketplace.