Commentary: The brutal but deeply touching true story behind one of L.A.'s most celebrated chefs

LOS ANGELES, CA - August 3, 2022: Chef Keith Corbin ((Katrina Frederick/For The Times)
(Katrina Frederick / For The Times)

Keith Corbin’s “California Soul” is often brutal and tragic as it depicts life in Watts for Black people as they try to survive the mayhem of the drug economy. But his autobiography is much more about family than gangbanging, though drug dealing and prison time defined much of Corbin’s early life.

While his portrait of a world awash in drugs and guns is compelling, his writing about family — particularly his grandmother, who cooked for the entire neighborhood — is often deeply touching.

“She was like the food Pied Piper,” Corbin writes. “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 big 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 ’60s as they shoveled down my Granny’s meals.”

Corbin’s grandmother helped inspire much of his second act, now unfolding as the chef and co-owner of Alta Adams, one of L.A.’s most celebrated restaurants.

His book tells the story of how he unexpectedly found a passion for cooking after growing up surrounded by tragedy and violence. Corbin will join the L.A. Times Book Club on Aug. 23 to discuss “California Soul.”

When I first met Keith Corbin, I saw a big man who’s obviously juggling many things at his restaurant in L.A.’s West Adams neighborhood. He’s grilling meats while making decisions about future construction at the restaurant, then jumping into an intense discussion about which wines from vintners of color to purchase.

In the middle of all that, he shifts gears to mention a dean of students at Locke High School in South L.A. who potentially saved his life by not admitting him. Some gangbangers there who had killed Corbin’s relative were plotting to kill him too.

He talks about the memory as though it’s an afterthought and not worth much discussion, but it’s like that with him. He survived and prospered in a dangerous world, and that is a difficult trick to pull off.

Two men sit in a restaurant booth smiling and talking
Chefs Keith Corbin, left, and Daniel Patterson at Alta Adams in 2018. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

From what I saw of Corbin's interactions with his staff, Alta is a workplace of genuine warmth and collaboration. When asked about that he praised his mentors, chefs Daniel Patterson and Roy Choi, who gave a parolee a chance and believed in him when others didn’t.

Corbin says Patterson and Choi were there for him even when he was ready to give up on himself. Their influence was so powerful that Corbin now brings in young people every week and shows them how to work in a kitchen and make another kind of life for themselves far from guns and mayhem.

“It's all about giving chances and opportunity because without that, I wouldn't be here,” he says.

“None of us went to school for this. We're learning as we go.”

A man in a kitchen dices vegetables
Chef Keith Corbin prepares ingredients to cook his "California Gombo" in the L.A. Times Test Kitchen. (Katrina Frederick / For The Times)

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.

“My mom spent part of her pregnancy with me in jail on a drug charge,” he writes in the first chapter. “When I was a baby, my uncle used to carry me around and sell drugs out of my diaper.”

Growing up, there were no set rules. No schedules. No nap times. No square meals. He recalls police raids and finding refuge at the home of his granny, Louella Henderson.

“Whether it was bank robbing or drug dealing, at the end of the day, it was all just a hustle," he writes. "Our goal was simple: get money any way you can. This is one of the hardest things for me to explain to white folks trying to pin down in a way that translates to their world. You could be a drug dealer, but also rob banks, sell burgers, paint houses. These were not job titles. You weren’t trying to build a career. The hustle was the hustle.”

So much of Corbin’s writing (he wrote the book with Kevin Alexander) is what crime writers aspire to do, but the language and conventions of crime writing sometime seem stilted or manufactured. Reading “California Soul” is a different experience.

Corbin’s story comes through without self-consciousness and in his own language, a language that isn’t the vernacular of the generic streets but the patois of those of us who grew up in Black Los Angeles.

What is also impressive about Corbin’s work is that he makes more sense of aspects of gang culture than most I’ve read.

“In South Central, clothes were another way to fence us in, but this time we did it to ourselves. To this day, there is no such thing as just wearing gear to support a team you like. Everything means something else. Purple Vikings or Lakers gear means Grape Street. Red Nebraska hats mean you rep the Nickersons.”

Corbin’s description of his neighborhood compelled me to remember what I experienced in the 1980s teaching at Locke, where the school track course was named to celebrate the achievements of Olympian Valerie Brisco-Hooks, or so I thought. Later I learned the field was named for her brother, Robert, who was shot to death training on the track by someone who was never caught.

Corbin shows what it’s like to live in a gun-riddled culture that makes taking a life easy and contributes to an endless cycle of violent repercussions.

He writes about his gang life and realizing he needed to get far away from it:

“We were looking for any Blood, anyone affiliated. And soon enough a dude in his twenties wearing a red hat came out of the store. He would do.”

“With my 9mm in one hand, I cracked open the door and turned to look over my shoulder. And in that moment seeing the faces of my brother and (friend) Montana, I paused. This s— didn’t feel right. I got back in the car, shut the door, and put my gun down.

“‘F— this,’ I told my cousin, ‘Let’s go.’

“As we drove away, I watched the young dude in the red hat get in his car, oblivious to the fact that his life had been so, so close to being over.

“I was done. This was the end, I had to get out now for real.”

What Corbin has created with “California Soul” is as compelling or more so than “Boyz N the Hood” and “Menace II Society.” What he has had to confront to get to where he is now, a respected chef with one of the city’s hottest restaurants, is a minor miracle. He didn’t turn his back on the world we were raised in, he didn’t flee like I did, he struggled to find his way in it.

Now through his relentless drive his star has risen.

Jervey Tervalon is a novelist, screenwriter and the author of “Understand This” and other books. He teaches at the UC Santa Barbara College of Creative Studies.

Book Club: If You Go

What: Keith Corbinjoins the L.A. Times Book Club to discuss “California Soul: An American Epic of Cooking and Survival” with Times food editor Daniel Hernandez.

When: 7 p.m. PT Aug 23. Doors open at 6 p.m.

Where: ASU California Center, 1111 S. Broadway, Los Angeles. In-person and virtual tickets are available on Eventbrite.

More info: Sign up for the L.A. Times Book Club newsletter, latimes.com/bookclub

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.