Just when it seemed that Liberians had had much too much of the trend of recent deaths in the country, another outstanding Liberian, Hawa-Ellen Knuckles, answered to her eternal summons.
Hawa-Ellen, as she was known to most, was the founder, proprietress and executive chef of the famous Evelyn’s Restaurant, located in Sinkor, Monrovia. According to family sources, she met her demise at the St. Joseph’s Catholic Hospital, Congo Town, due to kidney failure.
“The Knuckles Family and the Management of Evelyn's Restaurant sincerely regret to announce the passing of Madam Hawa-Ellen Knuckles. Hawa-Ellen passed away on Monday, July 5th, 2021 due to kidney failure at the St. Joseph's Catholic Hospital,” reads a statement by Willis (Marie) & Ethel Knuckles on the Evelyn’s Restaurant Facebook page.
At the Catholic Hospital, she was diagnosed with sepsis (bacterial infection in the blood) and kidney malfunction, conditions that were aggravated by other pre-existing conditions of diabetes and high blood pressure. While at the hospital, the family said, she took a test for COVID-19, and the result was negative. Even after she expired, a subsequent COVID-19 test turned out negative.
“As a sign of respect for the Proprietress, Executive Chef and Founder of Evelyn's Restaurant, Evelyn's will be closed for the remainder of this week, and will reopen on Monday, July 12th. Funeral arrangements will be announced later.”
An accountant by training, Hawa-Ellen spent the last decade and a half of her life doing what she loved best -- feeding people. Inspired by her mother the late Hawa Evelyn Knuckles, who authored a book of Liberian recipes, titled “Kitchen Talk”, Hawa-Ellen turned her passion into a portfolio that eventually got featured in the New York Times, the Daily Observer and several other renowned international and local media outlets.
Therefore, it was no wonder that Hawa-Ellen named the restaurant after her mother. Copies of Kitchen Talk are on sale at Evelyn's Restaurant.
In a testimonial tribute on Facebook following Hawa-Ellen’s death, her friend and schoolmate, Lydia Sherman Garnett, wrote: “You provided food daily to the juvenile detention center operated by the Ministry of Gender during the year of 2013. Provided food for the Liberian Children Village Holiday parties. Never a day I will ask for a favor and you would say no, especially in regards to our abandoned and vulnerable children. Aye Hawa, you left us too soon. A beautiful soul. I will miss you. Rest In Peace, my sister.”
Hawa-Ellen once remarked that early on, her father, the late Willis Defrancis Knuckles, Jr., would require her and her siblings to each produce and defend a business plan. Anyone who knew Mr. Knuckles knew that one of the things he was never short of was good ideas and the ability to turn them into profit. “This is the kind of training we got,” Hawa-Ellen said during a tribute to their father at his funeral in August 2014.
Evelyn’s Restaurant began on the ground floor of a building on Broad Street, Monrovia, opposite the historic National Museum of Liberia. The restaurant became an instant sensation and a tourist attraction of sorts. Most visitors to Liberia would not leave without a visit to Evelyn’s Restaurant to sample their signature Goat Soup with Dumboy, or Tugborgee, or Bitter Leaf, or Dry Rice, among several other sumptuous Liberian and international dishes and desserts on the menu. During the weeks leading to the National Independence Day celebration every year, Evelyn’s would roll out a spread of dishes from each county. So if you had never been to certain parts of Liberia before, Evelyn’s made sure you traveled the country through your taste buds.
After a few years of what she described as predatory rental terms from her landlord on Broad Street, she obtained a bank loan from EcoBank and invested in a piece of property -- the Sinkor location -- and set up the new Evelyn’s Restaurant. The place never lost its flavor and, within a few short years, she had completely paid off the full loan.
Now, thirteen years since its founding, Evelyn’s has retained some of the most loyal and professional staff in the business, an enviable feat by most others in its category. Then again, Evelyn’s has always been in a category of its own. Where others seemed to dabble in the restaurant space for authentic Liberian cuisine, there seems to be no comparison to Evelyn’s in terms of the recipes, the variety of dishes, the seasonal beverages and customer service. There truly is nothing like it -- and where others tried and did not succeed, Hawa-Ellen blazed the trail with what may now be justified as ‘trade secrets’ -- possibly a Knuckles Family heirloom.
The restaurant survived the Ebola epidemic and has so far made it through the current COVID pandemic, because Hawa-Ellen strategically made adjustments to her business model to enable Evelyn’s to continue operating within government’s guidelines, while still ensuring she did not reduce her workforce. While many businesses downsized, Evelyn’s found a way to reduce hours rather than letting staff go, to ensure a continuous income for her employees during challenging times.
Around April of 2020, when Liberia was headed for a period of lockdown due to COVID-19, and with her restaurant on limited schedule as per government regulations to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus, she had the singular duty of escorting her ailing mother, Mrs. Hawa Evelyn Knuckles, to Abidjan, La Côte d’Ivoire, for advanced medical treatment. Unfortunately, Mother Knuckles expired while in Abidjan. They were in that neighboring country, when the lockdown was imposed in Liberia and she narrated to the Daily Observer at one point that it was quite an ordeal getting the remains of Mother Knuckles back to Monrovia. Well, she finally returned with the body and a small funeral was held at the family plot in Careysburg.
Little did she know she would follow her mother to the Great Beyond just over a year later.
Born on January 4, 1972, to the union of Willis D. and Hawa E. Knuckles, Hawa-Ellen was the first of three children. She attended JJ Roberts United Methodist School and matriculated to College of West Africa, where she obtained her high school diploma. Lifelong friends and members of her graduating CWA class of 1987 include Giede-de Boyd Williams, Marc Amblard, Esther Korvah Ricks, and Henry Cooper. She attended the University of Liberia, and later received her Bachelor’s Degree in Accounting from Morris Brown in Atlanta, GA (USA). She went on to obtain her Master’s in Business in Administration from Pace University in 1998.
She is survived by two siblings, Ethel Knuckles & Willis D. Knuckles, III (Marie), many cousins, nieces, nephews and a host of relatives in and out of Liberia.