Chef Shumu Adem’s Journey From War-Torn Ethiopia to NCAA Final Four

Ethiopia was in chaos. In 1974, Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown and the Ethiopian monarchy was abolished. Military leaders responsible for the coup not only sought to consolidate power, but also to eliminate any and all opposition.

From 1976-78, the Red Terror reigned throughout the African nation, particularly in major cities including the capital of Addis Ababa, targeting members and supporters of the Ethopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP). Homes were searched and people, many of whom were students, were detained, tortured and executed without trial or cause.

One of the most systematic uses of mass murder by the state ever witnessed in Africa resulted in at least 10,000 deaths, though the total death toll is still unknown to this day.

“When I saw my friends starting to get arrested, I decided to flee Ethiopia to try to forge a future for myself,” said Shimelis “Shumu” Adem, executive chef at Lucas Oil Stadium and Indiana Convention Center.

In 1977, at the height of the Red Terror, Adem sought refuge at a convent in neighboring Djibouti. For the next three years Adem, who was equally as intrigued with taste and texture as he was bucking the cultural trend that only Ethiopian women were permitted in the kitchen, honed his culinary craft by cooking for a dozen nuns as well as other workers and residents of the convent, including fellow Ethiopian refugees.

Despite not speaking French, Adem communicated with two British nuns and one from Ethiopia during this time there, where he was taught French and Italian cuisine.

“The experience was great,” Adem said. “It made me decide to continue my future career in the culinary arts. I look back at this time fondly, and value it as a foundational pillar to making me the chef I am today. 

“At its core, I am still doing the same thing now as I was then—helping make the time people spend together more memorable.”

Adem came to the United States in 1980 to create his own American Dream. Over the next 25 years, he worked in a variety of roles up and down the East Coast including in Baltimore and Philadelphia, serving as executive sous chef at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. He received his Pro Chef Certification Level III from the Culinary Institute of America in February 2004, and three years later moved to Indianapolis for a new opportunity.

Today, Adem is the executive chef at Lucas Oil Stadium, home to the Indianapolis Colts, and the Indiana Convention Center. Through the venues’ food and beverage provider Centerplate, Adem has developed, led and executed the culinary programs for major sporting events including Super Bowl XLVI, Big Ten Championship Game, NCAA Final Four (2010, 2015) and NFL Combine.

His two venues will serve as focal points for the upcoming NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, with the First Four to be played March 17. Lucas Oil Stadium will host the Elite Eight (March 29-30), Final Four (April 3) and Championship Game (April 5), while the one-million-square-foot Indiana Convention Center will be used as a practice facility with 12 courts set up inside the venue.

“No matter the event, the approach stays the same—paying attention to detail, tapping into our local suppliers and delivering creative menus that delight the guests who come to eat with us,” Adem said. “To borrow a basketball term, that’s the game plan for success.”

Adem said he and his team have utilized the learnings over the past year during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic to safely provide food and beverage offerings for players, staff and fans; the NCAA in February confirmed venues will operate at 25% capacity and all attendees are required to wear face masks and practice social distancing.

For the NCAA Tournament, all points of sale will be cashless to reduce contact, while condiment stands in the concourse and vendors walking up and down aisles are eliminated. Pre-packaged items will be available in all-inclusive clubs in lieu of buffets. All food service employees are required to wear gloves and masks, while social distance markings will promote distancing guidelines in common areas.

Not only will Adem and Co. be whipping up fan favorites including Indiana whiskey sour pork wings and the Heartland beer cheese steak sandwich, the chef is compiling digital recipe cards featuring the house-made whiskey and orange marmalade, mango habanero madness sauce and applewood smoked bacon jam for fans watching at home.

“From my experience, my advice for young chefs is to set your future goal now,” Adem said. “Connect with chefs that can help you achieve your goal and always have a positive attitude. Understand you are learning not only from the chefs in your field, but also from everyone around you. Do not ever think you’re above learning. Do not be afraid to try new skills or cuisines. Develop and hone your own personal style.”

NOTE: First appeared on Forbes SportsMoney

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