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A sharply crafted and unflinchingly honest memoir about gangs, drugs, cooking, and living life on the line—both on the streets and in the kitchen—from one of the most exciting stars in the food world today
“As compelling or more so than Boyz N the Hood and Menace II Society . . . When Corbin writes about his life, it burns with the intensity of the best pulp fiction, but it isn’t fiction—it’s the life he lived.”—Los Angeles Times
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.
Under the Cover
An excerpt from California Soul
When some people say they grew up in the drug game, they mean it metaphorically.
That’s not what I mean.
My mom spent part of her pregnancy with me in jail on a drug charge. When I was a baby, my uncle used to carry me around and sell drugs out of my diaper. When I was a little kid, I lived in a drug house with my mother in the Jordan Downs projects, in Watts, until it was raided by the police.
So, when I say I grew up in the drug game, this shit ain’t an allegory. I mean it literally.
I grew up in the drug game.
My mother, Lydia Garner, was one of eight kids and rebellious from a young age. Though she spent a lot of years living with her deeply religious grandmother, by the time she was fifteen, she had been kicked out of her house for buying a pair of Levi’s 501 jeans—church rules said girls couldn’t wear pants—and ended up moving in with her aunt.
With weekend-long poker games and people always coming through drinking and partying, my aunt’s house had a completely different vibe, and my mom began to assimilate to that lifestyle. Her cousin Bertie Jo was a drug legend, famous in Watts for two things: (1) having the only private swimming pool in Watts; and (2) creating and controlling the PCP trade in South Central in the 1970s and ’80s.
Just to be clear, that pool wasn’t used for swimming. It takes lots of liquids to make PCP.
As a teenager, my mother started selling PCP for her cousin and witnessed up close the power, influence, and money at the top of the drug food chain. She saw bribes get delivered to judges, policemen, and anyone else whose wheels needed greasing. She saw fancy cars, clothes, and jewelry. But she also saw the dark side of the game. After a disagreement with her cousin over money, she was almost killed when a man beat her up and tried to give her a “hot shot” of heroin in the neck, to make it look like she’d overdosed.
Thankfully, she’s always been a fighter. She fought off that man and had no problem fighting anyone else, man or woman, who might cross her. People didn’t expect that from a slim, pretty girl with a big smile. My mom was, and still is, an alpha—more so than most men. She had a presence, and whenever she came into a room, it was like a spotlight came out the ceiling and shined down on her. Even if you weren’t looking at my mom, you knew where she was.
In 1979, my mother had my older sister Kadeisha, but before she was even born, Kadeisha’s father was shot and killed by the police. A year later, my momma met my dad, Samuel Corbin. About fifteen years older and married with a whole other family in another part of Watts, my dad had a good job at the Department of Water and Power, but he knew the other side as well. He was part of an old-school safecracking crew, and his older sons controlled the drug game in Watts’s Front Street neighborhood. On the undeniable force of her personality alone, I’m sure my mother charmed him from the beginning, because soon after they met, on November 21, 1980, they had me.
Because my dad had another family, there are no pictures of all three of us together in the hospital, no blue balloons tied to the mailbox when they brought me home. As soon as she could, my mother took me back to the dope house where she was living and got back to it. Life resumed.
Growing up in that house, I had no set rules—no scheduled nap times or square meals, no one to wipe my ass or tell me to brush my teeth. Life was a random accumulation of events. Even now, I see it more in imagery and scenes than stories. I see myself dropping firecrackers through mail slots with my uncle. I see another of my uncles jumping out of a car and running from the police as we played trash can basketball in the project streets. And I see the police raid that sent my mom to jail.
These were the days of L.A. police chief Daryl Gates and “Operation Hammer,” when hundreds of SWAT team cops would brutally raid suspected drug houses in South Central. During one raid, on Dalton Avenue in 1988, the cops f***ed up the houses so bad, spray-painting “LAPD Rules” on walls and smashing furniture with sledgehammers and axes, that the Red Cross was called in. On another, after everyone was handcuffed, Gates brought Nancy Reagan through for a tour. Posing for the photo op, the First Lady commented, “These people in here are beyond the point of teaching and rehabilitating.”
When our house was raided, we weren’t lucky enough to get a celebrity appearance. Maybe it was too early in the day. I remember getting ready to go to school when the SWAT police came charging in with sledgehammers and guns, looking more like RoboCops than beat cops. I remember the sound of everything breaking: the door, the table, the walls. Smash. Smash. Smash. It was scary as hell.
Because of the raid, my momma went to jail, so she left me, Kadeisha, and my two younger brothers, Kevin and Bam, with my Granny Louella. Even after she got out, my mother knew the demons of her drug addiction were too much and that the best care we could get was with Granny. Still, she tried to help in her own way, leaving money she made from selling drugs with Miss Margaret at the candy store for my Pa Pa to pick up and turning her county check over to my grandparents.
This is where my actual memories begin.
Granny’s house at 10617 Juniper Street in Watts was always buzzing. Part of that may have had to do with the fact that she didn’t own a key, so the door was always open. You never knew who was going to be on the couch in the morning, recovering from last night or kicking things off today.
But it was mainly about the food. In our neighborhood, my Granny was a legendary cook. Everything about the way she kept her house was designed to feed the masses, whether she knew you or not. In her backyard, she had live chickens and an occasional pig, which she and my Pa Pa would butcher themselves and roast in a pit in the front yard. She had citrus trees and a vegetable garden and grapevines. Granny had come out to California from Alabama as a child in the 1940s, during the Second Great Migration, and a piece of that southern country upbringing had stayed with her. In her younger days, she fed everyone from her yard. Only the staples were store-bought. You wanted ice cream? Go churn it yourself.
She kept two deep freezers and two refrigerators in her garage, plus another refrigerator in the house, and she would pack all of them. When she cooked, she didn’t do it just for the family; she cooked with the intention of feeding the whole block. She’d get up at five a.m. on the weekdays to make bacon and eggs and grits for all of us kids. People used to say they knew we were coming from Louella’s because they’d see us happily eating bacon sandwiches on our walk to school, our faces shiny with grease. On the weekends, she’d cook the big meals, getting up early to put on one of her floral muumuus and get started. I remember watching her stand over a big old sink of water with her greens, meticulously cleaning each leaf like you might clean clothes on a washboard. In all the times I ate them, never once did I taste grit. She did the same thing with her chitlins, cleaning the intestines one at a time, incorporating love and care from the beginning, never skipping steps.
She would make giant pots of gumbo, huge vats of bubbling chili and rice; pull every last bit of meat off the neckbones for beef and potato burritos. She was like the food Pied Piper. Folks from all over would smell my Granny’s cooking and conveniently wander by right when it was ready, so every night was like a party. My Pa Pa and his friends would sit out on the porch drinking Thunderbird and Night Train, listening to music and laughing and joking and telling stories from the sixties as they shoveled down my Granny’s meals. We’d have neighborhood kids and cousins and our brothers and sisters running through, grabbing a quick bite of a burrito, before sprinting into the backyard to play tag. And my Granny, tired from hours of cooking, would go sit in her favorite chair in the corner of the living room. On the table in front of her would always be five things: a cup of coffee; a Pall Mall Red cigarette; a lottery ticket; a cake; and a twelve-inch turn-the-dial television with a clothes hanger as an antenna, so she could watch her Murder, She Wrote or her Westerns. She loved John Wayne.
Every day, there would be a different big-ass cake on that table: German chocolate, vanilla, pineapple upside-down, Sock It to Me. Anytime someone new came to the house, the first thing my Granny would ask them was “When is your birthday?” and then “What’s your favorite type of cake?” It didn’t matter if that kid never showed up again in his life, on his birthday, my Granny would have his favorite type of cake waiting on that table, ready for him, or anyone else, to take a slice.
Kevin Alexander is a James Beard Award-winning food journalist and recipient of the Society of Professional Journalist's Mark of Excellence Award. His work has appeared in Esquire, Elle, Men's Journal, The New Republic, and Boston Globe, and he is a 2018 Association of Food Journalists award winner. He was born in Texas, grew up in New England, and now lives in Northern California.