Heartbreak. Triumph. Loss. Joy. Rage. Defeat. Success. Love. Keith Corbin, the chef and co-owner of modern soul food restaurant Alta Adams in West Adams, lays all of that, and more, on the table in his new memoir, California Soul: An American Epic of Cooking and Survival (out tomorrow, August 16, from Penguin Random House and co-written by James Beard Award winner Kevin Alexander).
Corbin’s story is a uniquely Los Angeles one. In the book, he’s unflinchingly honest about growing up in a broken home in Watts, mastering the art of manufacturing crack as a teenager, and the 1992 gang truce that he credits with saving many lives of his generation, including his own. Corbin started cooking in prison, more as a means of survival and creating a hustle, but it’s also where he started to shape the palate that he’s now known for at Alta.
“When I started cooking professionally, I could count on the ingenuity I learned in prison to help when I didn’t have all the components for a recipe,” Corbin writes. “Some prison cooks might have just given up on it, but not me. I’d start substituting, and inventing, and trying new things. I saw what was around me and created from it.”
Corbin also details his experiences as part of the opening team of the Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson project Locol, which at the time of its 2016 launch in Watts had the mission of bringing high-quality, nutritious food to underserved communities (Locol closed its Watts location in 2018). He went on to open Alta to rave reviews with Patterson in 2018, while still battling a decades-long drug addiction, sparring over ownership, and continuing his life on the streets.
Eater sat down with Corbin to talk about the book, growing up in Watts, and his hopes for Alta.
Why did you want to write a memoir?
Keith Corbin: I wanted to talk to people who are in the struggle. When I was in prison, I would read these urban tales. They’d start with four people: one would snitch, one would get killed, one would be in prison, and one would get out. I wanted to talk to people about what “getting out” looked like. There’s this idea that there’s a magic door when you come home from prison where you get a straight job, and boom, everything is perfect. But that’s not the truth.
How did your family and childhood influence your cooking?
I grew up in a broken home. My mother and father sold drugs, so I stayed with my grandmother. There were no moments of, you know, the Italian movie where the kid is under the table while grandma is making meatballs. What I did see was my grandmother spending 10 to 12 hours a day cooking to feed the community and the neighborhood. My passion is cooking for people like that.
Why was it important to be completely honest about things like cooking and selling crack as a teenager?
If the group of people you’re trying to talk to feels you can’t understand the struggle, they don’t want to hear that shit. I’m telling you that you can rise above it, because I’ve done it. I was born in 1980; my path was laid out for me. Redlining and discrimination had already choked the life out of my community, and it forced this underground economy, which was the only one I could tap into. This book is partly educational, too, to dispel this false narrative of prisons being a rehabilitation center. There’s nothing in there but more crime and racism.
Your cooking career really started in prison. How did that experience inform your cooking?
My whole life was always about creating a product and distinguishing it from the masses. When I was making spreads [meals made with commissary ingredients], my palate started talking to me. And then once I got my kitchen job, I decided to take it further, because I had access to things I didn’t have access to in my cell. I started selling burritos, rice bowls…Cooking appealed to my nature of hustle and ingenuity and creativity.
What were the hardest and most rewarding parts of your experience at Locol?
The most challenging part was myself. I was dealing with my own shortcomings, and I had never worked in a professional kitchen, I was still battling drug addiction, and I was still in the streets. I was self-sabotaging. The most rewarding part was working with my community and shining a positive light on it.
Locol was a media darling, but some of that same media characterized it as a failure when it closed. What are your thoughts on that?
I give the middle finger to everybody that claims Locol as a failure. It shows you don’t care about lives being changed in my community. It was a success, if not only in my life, and it put me in a position to potentially change more lives. [Former Locol employee] Corneshia has her own trucking company. Cory up in the Bay Area has his own cleaning company, and he came to Locol after doing 20 years for murder. The twins are big-time Pop Warner football coaches, and created a path for sending kids to college. What Locol did for us, we’re now doing in our own way.
What was it like, after Locol, to learn how to cook chef-driven food?
Working with Daniel at his various restaurants, I was able to pick up ideas and techniques, and imagine if there was a way I could do that to the food I’d grown up with. I didn’t want to make collard greens as a bowl of mush; let’s wrap it in a leaf and have it look presentable. I was like a homeowner dreaming up this beautiful home with no idea of how to build it, but I had Daniel to bounce these ideas off of and think how we could put it all together.
You were initially promised ownership at Alta, but it didn’t happen right away. Why was ownership so important to you?
Generational wealth comes with ownership. At the time, I was co-creating something that I felt belonged to me. To not own the intellectual property was hard — but in retrospect, who would’ve partnered with an inexperienced drug addict? The hard part was that things were agreed to and then reversed. But instead of working my ass off and proving my worth, I went the other way. Later I took steps towards improving my life. The pandemic hit, life slowed down, and this fight about the restaurant was on pause. After putting that work in, and the ownership developing, it was rewarding that life started to open up and receive me.
How do you see Alta’s role now?
I hope Alta is here for generations to come. It’s a beacon, from the work that we do, to how we hire, to the systems we put into place, to the involvement in the community. It’s an extension of Locol; we’re still changing lives. When we made all these best-of lists, this restaurant was being run by ex-cons and felons. They’ve gone on to do other things, and now we have a new group of people to go on to do bigger things.
Editor’s note: This interview was condensed for clarity.