By Shirley Hawkins
WEST ADAMS — Keith Corbin’s days as a cook didn’t begin fixing some of the dishes that are served at Alta Adams, the restaurant he helps run in the historic West Adams district.
Corbin’s first success as a cook came when he was barely a teenager and it wasn’t the tasty fried chicken, the vegan gumbo or black-eyed pea fritters he serves to his customers today.
Back then, Corbin was cooking up cocaine. His unique method of cooking coke became the talk of the drug world and soon he was being flown to different cities around the country by drug crews who wanted Corbin to teach them how he cooked his cocaine.
“Of course, I charged them a fee before I taught them how to cook it,” he recalls.
Now 41, Corbin has chronicled his story in the recently released book, “California Soul: An American Epic of Cooking and Survival.”
Growing up in the Jordan Downs housing project in Watts, Corbin was a member of the Grape Street Crips and was exposed to drugs at an early age. Both of his parents were enmeshed in the drug culture and his oldest brother was a drug dealer.
Corbin followed in his brother’s footsteps and learned everything he could about the drug trade. By the age of 13 he was cooking and selling cocaine. He recruited his neighborhood friends and they did a brisk business pulling in as much as $250,000 a month.
By the time he was 21, Corbin had been sentenced to prisons where he served time off and on for nearly 10 years.
Luckily, he was assigned to the prison kitchen and he soon started serving meals from the prison kitchen that became popular with the inmates.
“Due to the poor food that is served in prisons, the guys in the cells learned to become very creative,” Corbin said. “They would take noodles and add sausages and peppers. They would make Chimichanga burritos and they would take their hot pot and turn it into a fryer to fry food. They made tamales out of Fritos or made cheese sauce out of Cheez-Its.”
He said he developed his culinary skills by watching his grandmother, Louella Henderson, cook as a boy.
“She was known for whipping up soul food favorites and feeding them to people in the neighborhood,” Corbin said. “She would rise at 5 and 6 a.m. in the morning to slow cook these meals, which would sometimes take five or six hours.”
When he was released from prison, Corbin landed a job in a refinery but was fired after it was discovered that he had a felony record. That left him bitter.
“I think that society is unfair and unforgiving,” Corbin said. “Someone comes home from prison and discovers that the system won’t give him a job, even after they’ve served their time. So that individual goes back to hustling to feed his family and then he is criminalized for just trying to survive.
“How do you expect a person to survive if not given an opportunity?” he asked. “Prison doesn’t stop crime. Crime will continue to exist. As long as you have poverty, you’re going to have crime. When a person is removed from poverty, crime stops.
“The system is screwed,” Corbin continued. “I wanted to feed my family and no one would employ me. So either I let my family starve or go back to hustling. It’s an unjust system.”
After losing his job at the refinery, Corbin’s mother told him about a new restaurant in Watts called LocoL that was founded by celebrated chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson. Corbin applied for a job and was hired.
The restaurant eventually closed down, but Patterson flew Corbin to San Francisco to work in one of his restaurants there. Corbin shared his ideas for starting a restaurant that served healthy soul food with a California flavor with Patterson, who liked the idea.
“One day he said, ‘You want to go back to L.A.? I said ‘yes’, Corbin recalls.
Patterson had just opened the Alta Adams restaurant in 2018 and Patterson and Corbin formed a partnership to make the restaurant a success. They have not looked back and the restaurant has become a favorite with diners and restaurant critics alike.
On any given night, Alta Adams serves its soulful cuisine to Hollywood’s glitterati including Jay Z, Diddy, Issa Rae, Tracee Ellis Ross, John Legend, Tiffany Haddish and Lena Waithe, among others.
“We serve about 1,800 to 2,000 customers a week,” said Corbin, whose phones never stop ringing as potential diners call to book reservations.
Patrons love his California cuisine that reinvents traditional soul food in an innovative and healthy way.
“I took the food I grew up with and reframed it using California ingredients with California love,” Corbin said. “I was also inspired by the multicultural influence that California has.”
At Alta Adams, patrons get their meals served in an outdoor patio decorated with wooden tables where abundant green jasmine plants drape the walls. Inside, there is more cozy seating and a bar that specializes in serving wines from vineyards owned by Afrian Americans.
Asked how he feels about reaching the heady heights of the culinary world, Corbin shrugs off the compliment.
“The biggest success for me is providing a representation to people of what can be accomplished,” he said. “It’s not just about rapping and playing (basket)ball. This is just another route that can be taken. I have proven that this occupation can lead to success.”
Another perk of being a chef is that Corbin met his future wife, Renee, one evening when she walked into the restaurant with a friend.
“She and her friend sat at the bar. I took her outside to show her how real estate was booming in the community,” Corbin said. “Our hands accidentally touched and sparks flew.”
Corbin is now engaged and is the proud father of a baby boy named Samuel.
His future plans are to use his platform to show people what can be accomplished.
“People who come home from prison have no opportunity,” he said. “I hire those people who have lived in the projects, been released from prison as well as folks from the local community.
“Having come up myself from an impoverished situation, I know that our people need help and support. We have to give them the opportunity to succeed,” he added.
“If someone comes to me and wants to be employed, how can I turn them away? Who’s going to hire them? If I have an opening (at the restaurant), I will.”
Alta Adams restaurant is located at 5359 W. Adams Blvd. Access them at altaadams.com or by calling 323-571-4999.
Shirley Hawkins is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.