Shumu Adem, executive chef at Colts’ stadium, shares story of fleeing Ethiopia during the Red Terror, becoming a chef

·6 min read
Shumu Adem currently works as the executive chef at Lucas Oil Stadium. (Photo: Shumu Adem)
Shumu Adem currently works as the executive chef at Lucas Oil Stadium. (Photo: Shumu Adem)

In the late ’70s, political strife known as the Red Terror devastated Ethiopia. The emperor was overthrown in 1974, and the military staged a coup to consolidate power and eliminate all opposition. Chef Shimelis "Shumu" Adem remembers the horrors of the time well.

While no one knows for sure how many people were detained, tortured and murdered during the strife between warring political parties, estimates are in the hundreds of thousands — including a minimum of 10,000 in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, alone.

Refugees poured from Ethiopia and into neighboring countries like Kenya, Somalia and Djibouti. Adem, who says he was a "very young age" at the time, was one of them, fleeing after watching his friends' arrest and detainment.

Now the senior executive chef at Indiana Convention Center and Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Indianapolis Colts, Adem recalls walking with a friend from their home in Addis Ababa to the Djiboutian border — any other form of transportation was out of the question due to checkpoints. Once they made it to Djibouti, they found a French convent where they took refuge.

Chef Adem with two Indianapolis Colts cheerleaders. (Photo: Shumu Adem)
Chef Adem with two Indianapolis Colts cheerleaders. (Photo: Shumu Adem)

"The Djiboutian government was not allowing refugees at the time," Adem tells Yahoo Life. "So we stayed in the convent and worked to say 'thank you' and help the nuns who were helping us. The nuns asked if I would help in the kitchen, and that's where I learned to cook."

Before his time at the convent, Adem had never stepped foot in a kitchen. "In Ethiopia, men are not allowed in the kitchen as it's the woman's domain," he explains. "But I'd always been curious about how all the delicious food I ate growing up came to be. I started doing the prep in the kitchen and learned more and more as time went on."

Adem credits his time in the convent's kitchen with giving him the foundation for his culinary career — a profession that's taken him far and wide.

Adem's companion eventually left the convent, but he stayed for three and a half years, learning English and French as well as apprenticing in the kitchen. When President Jimmy Carter signed the Refugee Act of 1980, which raised the number of refugees allowed asylum in the U.S. from just over 17,000 to more than 50,000, Adem decided to apply and was granted asylum that year.

He moved to Philadelphia to start his journey. Speaking fluent Italian, but still "broken English with a British accent," Chef Adem found an Italian restaurant where he felt comfortable communicating and picking up more of the English language and American terminology. Over the next 25 years, he worked his way through kitchens small and large, casual and fine dining, boutique and high-volume.

"I was always looking for something bigger and better," he says. "I came to this land of opportunity and I kept looking for a challenge."

He found it as executive sous chef at the Philadelphia Convention Center, where he served more than 5,000 people per day and received his level three ProChef Certification from the Culinary Institute of America.

After working with Sodexo Live, a sporting venue and major events management company, as executive chef at the Baltimore Convention Center and Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Adem received a call regarding the opening of Lucas Oil Stadium. "It was a great opportunity," he says. "I didn't even think twice. I packed up and moved to Indianapolis and it has been an incredible journey this company has taken me on."

Food is a main draw for fans at Lucas Oil Stadium, and Adem puts all his passion into creating a menu that will excite guests while they cheer on the Colts. This year's menu features ingredients local to Indiana, like corn and pork, as well as two dishes Adem created in collaboration with Colts linebacker Darius Leonard and defensive tackle Grover Stewart.

"Each year we strive to bring new ideas to our fans," says Stephanie Pemberton, vice president of marketing for the Indianapolis Colts. "And these are dishes you can't find anywhere else. It's just another way to tap into the power of the Horseshoe."

Adem and Leonard created a dish that gives back: The Maniac Burger of the Game, which will rotate for each Colts home game and be themed to the signature food in the opposing team's city. When the Colts take on the Tennessee Titans, for example, the burger will be topped with pickles, crispy tobacco onions and Nashville hot aioli. When the Houston Texans come to play, a smoked brisket, thick-sliced onion rings and provolone-topped burger will be served. Proceeds from the burgers will go to Maniac Foundation, an organization dedicated to improving communities that was founded in 2020 by Leonard and his wife.

Adem and Colts linebacker Darius Leonard created a dish that gives back, the Maniac Burger of the Game, which will rotate for each Colts home game and be themed to the signature food in the opposing team's city.(Photo: Trevor Ruszkowski/USA TODAY Sports)
Adem and Colts linebacker Darius Leonard created a dish that gives back, the Maniac Burger of the Game, which will rotate for each Colts home game and be themed to the signature food in the opposing team's city. (Photo: Trevor Ruszkowski/USA TODAY Sports)

Stewart created the Kitchen Sink Chicken Wings dish in collaboration with Adem. His seasoned wings, topped with a butter and Coca-Cola barbecue sauce were featured on HBO's Hard Knocks last year.

"Chef Shumu's success story is incredible," says Pemberton. "We are so fortunate to have him as a member of our game-day team. He's deeply invested in our community, which is a core value of the Colts, and always displays a distinct brand of hoosier hospitality for our fans."

Adem believes he found the meaning of his life when he achieved freedom from oppression in Ethiopia. "Everyone is looking for freedom to do what they want," he says. "When I left my country, I wasn't thinking about being a great chef or achieving success — I just wanted to live. It wasn't until I got to the U.S. that I realized I could be anything I wanted in this country."

He was right. In his career, he's developed, led and executed culinary programs for Super Bowl XLVI, the College Football Playoff National Championship, Big Ten Conference championship games, the NCAA Final Four and the NFL Scouting Combine. Adem serves food to big-game winners, but says he's won a battle of his own: one for freedom from political and social oppression that's allowed him to rise up from refugee status to a culinary leader.

Wellness, parenting, body image and more: Get to know the who behind the hoo with Yahoo Life's newsletter. Sign up here.