Chef Keith Corbin is all ‘California Soul’

Hosted by

“I’ve lived my entire life wearing masks that would get me through the next day — in projects, in prison,” says Keith Corbin, the James Beard Award-nominated executive chef and co-owner of Alta Adams. Photo by Nick Muncie.

Chef Keith Corbin has been cooking his entire life. Born on the home turf of the notorious Grape Street Crips in 1980s Watts, Los Angeles, he got his start cooking crack at age thirteen, becoming so skilled that he was flown across the country to cook for drug operations in other cities. After his criminal enterprises caught up with him, though, Corbin spent years in California’s most notorious maximum security prisons—witnessing the resourcefulness of other inmates who made kimchi out of leftover vegetables and tamales from ground-up Fritos. He developed his own culinary palate and ingenuity, creating “spreads” out of the unbearable commissary ingredients and experimenting during his shifts in the prison kitchen.

After his release, Corbin got a job managing the kitchen at LocoL, an ambitious fast food restaurant spearheaded by celebrity chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson, designed to bring inexpensive, quality food and good jobs into underserved neighborhoods. But when Corbin was suddenly thrust into the spotlight, he struggled to live up to or accept the simplified “gangbanger redemption” portrayal of him in the media. As he battles private demons while achieving public success, Corbin traces the origins of his vision for “California soul food” and takes readers inside the worlds of gang hierarchy, drug dealing, prison politics, gentrification, and culinary achievement to tell the story of how he became head chef of Alta Adams, one of America’s best restaurants.

This year, Keith was recognized as a semifinalist for the James Beard Award for best chef in California. His memoir is “California Soul: An American Epic of Cooking and Survival.” 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Keith Corbin reads his memoir: “I’ve lived my entire life wearing masks that would get me through the next day — in projects, in prison. That’s where Fresh came in. In both those places, vulnerability was a liability. So, I did what I needed to do to survive. I cloaked myself in a predator’s threads to avoid becoming prey. I embodied Fresh, not Keith. And the things that Fresh did and the things that Fresh was known for and the things that Fresh was comfortable with — all those things, Keith was fearful of. Keith always wanted a family; Keith always wanted an education, but given the climate he lived in, he had to create this Fresh character. Keith had to put up these walls surrounding him, so that to hurt him, you’d have to go through Fresh first. And you didn’t fuck with Fresh. Fresh was with the violence. Fresh was with the hustling. Fresh was with disrespect. Fresh didn’t give  a shit about prison time. Fresh was all of that.  In a freer place and time, I would happily have been Keith and seen how far I would run with that — dominate that debate team in high school and college, be a history professor or maybe a big-time litigator, and either way, get really fucking good at golf. But that’s not the life I’d lived. So, when I made the decision to be done with all the gangster shit for real, it wasn’t like I could just give notice at Grape Street. Gangsters don’t retire; they get retired, moved from the streets to ink on your body or tags on walls. I needed a different plan.’’  

KCRW: What happened to Fresh? 

Keith Corbin: He hasn't gone anywhere. Like your experiences in life, they become a part of you. Fresh is a part of me. It’s just that I'm in a position now where Keith needs to lead. And in the phrase of prison: Keith needs to drive the car now. Fresh was created to protect Keith. And now when I look at it, Keith needs protection from Fresh.

You write that this is one of the hardest things for you to explain to white folks, trying to pin this down in a way that translates to their world, as you refer to the hustle and getting money any way you can. How have you navigated that narrative and telling your story? What are some of the lessons that you can impart for everyone regardless of background?

Just being truthful. Being honest. Giving the information from my point of view. I'm coming from an impoverished community. I understand, from my experience, that there's snares and traps set in place to trip us up and to keep us down. We don't have resources. We don't have access. We have inadequate medical care, and in these communities, we don't have job opportunities. So we have to hustle. A lot of times, white society or mainstream society, they feel that we made a choice to sell drugs. They believe that there's a choice in these decisions. No, it’s just a reaction to the circumstances. If I can't get a job because there's no opportunity in my community, then I have to do something to provide for my family, and drugs was the only opportunity that I had.

Can you describe your earliest memories in the Jordan Downs area of Watts? Where were you living, and who was raising you?

I was living with my mother at the Jordan Down projects. My mother was on drugs at the time. So I remember coming down the stairs to go to school and seeing addicts all over my house. This wasn't all the time, but your mind remembers the things that it wants to remember. But then also remember hopscotch. I remember playing at chess camp, and basketball. I remember playing tag. It wasn't till I got older that I realized that I had an impoverished childhood. As a child, I thought my childhood was rich. I had 40 or 50 friends in my generation running around the project playing ding dong ditch, playing flag football, going to the schools, and eating free lunch. When I think about my childhood, I had a rich childhood. Even with the violence going on around me, that was still loving and community.

Your culinary interest was awakened. When you're incarcerated and you write that getting a kitchen job in prison is prestigious and coveted. It's like a spot on the Supreme Court – you only get it if someone else leaves or dies. Tell me about your time in the kitchen while incarcerated, and then tell me a bit about your spreads, and how you’d use them on menus later.

Folks read that, and they believe that my culinary interest started in prison. But that's not the case. Nothing I created in prison translates into a casual, fine dining restaurant. It just doesn't. What does carry over, and this is before prison, is growing up in an impoverished situation – it is the creativity, that ingenuity that started before prison. That carried me through prison. And that's what carried me through this restaurant, and made me able to create the dishes that I create. It’s that ingenuity – that taking something from nothing, and making something out of it. 

But what did awaken in prison was my palate, because you have this inadequate food and you need it to be palatable. Like my palate started asking for things to add to a spread. You might just have a noodle, and then you might have this taste for smoked sausage to go with it. Then you make that and then it's like, okay, this probably be good with a little acidity. It could just be simple hot sauce, it could be pickled jalapenos. That's what started waking in prison – just to make the food taste better. And when I got to a place where everyone started enjoying what I was creating – the hustle is the hustle, and I started to sell it. And that was one of the things that got me through.

In order for things to run smoothly in a kitchen, you have to build a bond with the people working with you in that space, which is usually confined and not super comfortable. Did the bonds that you created when you were working in the kitchen in prison help defuse volatile situations there?

I don't necessarily think you have to build a bond. But you have to build a level of trust and respect, especially in prison. It’s all about politics. So in the kitchen, you have a lot of tribal leaders. One, because you want fair and equal representation, and there's a lot of racial tension in there. So you don't want the Black person overseeing all the food for all races, then the whites and Latinos may not trust it. And then that the kitchen has all the most dangerous weapons, with things that can be made out of weapons. So you want the right people in there to represent your organization to ensure that eyes are put on everyone else. It's just all politics. It's a ball of yarn. You have to navigate in the prison kitchens.

After you got released, you needed to work. How did you land your job at Local with Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson?

When I first came home from prison, I got a job at the oil refinery. I worked my butt off. At the time I was hired, they weren't doing background checks. Over time, they implemented background checks, but I was already in the company. But when I got the promotion, they required me to drive company cars, company equipment, and so they had to run my license. And that exposed me for the background check. So when the background check came back, I was terminated right on the spot. They walked me to the gate, took my badge, and locked me out. They didn't acknowledge that I was a good enough worker to already promote me, and they didn’t overlook my background. It wasn’t, ‘You got a background but we see how hard you work, or see how reliable he is, to the fact that we want to bring him up in our company.’ It was like, ‘No you got a background, get out.’

So for a couple of weeks, I just felt like maybe the streets was the only thing. It's hard coming home from prison and trying to go straight. You come home from prison, and they put you on parole or probation. And one of the requirements to get off of parole and probation is to find employment. But then in society, one of the things that keep you from being employed, is coming home from prison. That's where the recidivism comes from. But I got a call from my mother after I got fired. She told me, ‘Get over here. They're building his restaurant, in our community, in Watts.’ And so I drove over there, and he was hiring on the spot. The application just said, What's your name, your number, your email? Do you want to work? And he hired me.

Following Local, you ended up working for Daniel at his restaurants around the Bay Area. During that time, you mentioned a dream of celebrating your 40th birthday in your own restaurant. How did Daniel respond? And how did it give birth to your notion of California soul food?

So after Local, I was offered to come to the Bay Area, and work and train under Daniel Patterson in his restaurant group – he had four or five restaurants in the Bay Area at the time, and I would take shifts throughout all of them. During that time I was there, I spent a lot of time with Daniel going to the farmers market. It was my first time going to a farmers market in my life, at 37 years-old at the Embarcadero, San Francisco. It was the first time I went to a Whole Foods in my life. I remember going through there and seeing the big buckets of turtles (the candies), and I thought that was all free samples. And so I stick my hand in there and walk through the store. And I was eating the cheese. But looking at all that, it just seemed that damn, the food here comes pre- loved. 

Then I thought about the food that my granny had in her older age, because early on my granny farmed, and at the house, she had her chickens, rabbits, and an occasional pig. She had collard greens growing, and tomatoes, and things like that. But as she got older, she had to rely more on a grocery store. And the ingredients that we had in our community compared to what I was seeing at the farmers market, and at Whole Foods made me think, ‘Wow, I wonder what my granny could have created with this.’

So I started to think about these ingredients. And think about what I was seeing that the chefs were doing in the restaurant. I started thinking about ‘what if I apply that to the food that I grew up eating?’ And so I was riding with Daniel one day, and I pitched it. I'm like, I have this idea about taking this and that and applying it to soul food. And you know, opening my own restaurant and celebrating my 40th birthday in it. I was 37. I asked him, would you partner with me? He was like, ‘Sure, drop it through your business plan.’ 

Right there though, it was over. I didn’t go to college – I don't know how to write a business plan. That was a deterrent. So I let it go. And about two, three months later, I was working in Daniel’s restaurant, and he came into the kitchen, he pulled me out, and he was excited. He was like, ‘Remember that idea you were talking about? I have an opportunity to open a restaurant in LA. I think it would do great there. Would you be willing to partner and run it?’ Of course I say, ‘Yeah.’ Even though I knew I wasn't ready.

Do you have any thoughts about kitchen life? Positive thoughts about what culinary life gives you like emotionally?

Go watch ‘The Bear.’ That's the best answer I can give. But for me, the restaurant has given me stability. It's given me a family. You know, for those who worked in a restaurant, a restaurant is just a lot of misfits who come together for a common cause. And that's to feed people, or that's trying to change their life and do better.

I always felt like it was a place where people who felt like they didn't belong could find belonging.

Like right now – I grew up in a project and there's been some distance in my life between that, even though I connect with my people like I go down there, and I can connect with the folks, I can no longer connect with the environment. I'm not that careless kid anymore, so it'd be a little uneasy. But then I have a house in Westwood Hills, and I don't fit in there either. So I feel out of place all the time, except when I walk into the restaurant. Or when I go home to my family. But when I walk into the restaurant, I am right at home.

In “California Soul: An American Epic of Cooking and Survival,” chef Keith Corbin paints a picture of life on the streets to time in his West Adams kitchen. Photo courtesy of Penguin Random House LLC.