Keith Corbin. From the Projects to Head Chef

Keith Corbin is the Head Chef and creator of the remarkable cuisine at Alta, an explosively popular new restaurant located at 5359 W. Adams and Burnside in the West Adams Corridor. The Corridor is located west of West Blvd and connects Historic West Adams to the Culver City arts district. It is fast becoming the neighborhood go-to place for coffee, a cool pizza hangout, art galleries and now the upscale Alta with a masterful soul food menu created by Chef Corbin. Keith’s talent and innovative soul food recipes have been extensively written about and celebrated. After hearing about Keith’s background, TNN decided to focus on his remarkable history and journey from roots in the projects and gang life to heading one of the hottest restaurants in L.A. and a destination for foodies from all over the city.  Stories from people who make this kind of transition - from a difficult background to a position of strength through the successful mastering of their talents -  are always fascinating. 

Dec18Keith3 TNN:Keith, how long have you been a chef? 
Keith:  I've been cooking since I was a kid, but as far as the title of chef, it’s new. Since I’ve started working at Alta.

TNN:And how did you get that title?
Keith:  I was given the title by Daniel Patterson, a good friend of mine, my mentor and someone who helped me in my transition and gave me opportunity and a chance.

TNN:How did he find you? 
Keith:  I applied for a job at the restaurant that he and Roy Choi had just opened in my community, Watts.  It was called Locol.  I applied and first got the position as a line cook, then was moved up to manager, and then shortly was asked to join the executive body. Things happened really fast.

TNN:How fast from the time you went to apply till the job today?
Keith:  Not even four years.

TNN:Amazing! What was going on with you prior to finding that job?
Keith:  Well, actually I had just come home from prison where I had been incarcerated for 10 years.  I found a job working at the oil refinery, but my background caught up to me and they laid me off. “Oh you were in prison, we can't have you working here.” Then about a month later, I was driving through the neighborhood and I seen them hiring at the job fair. They was hiring on the spot pretty much. They really wasn't seeking out people with experience. They were seeking out people that needed opportunity, that needed a second chance. No background check.  No experience needed. Daniel and Andrew Miller had committed to training the staff.  All you had to do was want to be willing to work. So I filled out an application and things went from there. I started as a line cook first.

TNN:Why did they give you that job?
Keith:  They didn't know too much about me at that point or about my cooking background. They were pretty much just hiring people for positions and that position was open.

TNN:And they just gave you the cooks job?
Keith:  No experience was needed.  So I just happened to go by this place, see the sign that said we're looking for help, walked in and got hired as a line cook, and before I even was able to start the position as a line cook, I was asked to be a manager.

TNN:Wow. That is such a good story. But you actually did have experience with food.  Tell me about that.
Keith:  Well, I just grew up cooking with my granny and then I grew up in a community where you're like, you raise yourself. You know, either your parents or your mom or your dad is working so many hours that they're not present or they out, they strung out on drugs or whatever the case may be, I was in a community where we raised ourself. Kids raised each other. The streets raised us, or your granny raised you. I was fortunate to have my granny for most of the time and she taught me how to cook. Then I transitioned to raising myself, so I had to cook, and then the fellas that I ran with, I cooked for them. So I was the one that always was in the kitchen.

TNN:So the people that you were hanging out with, they were in a similar situation. Lack of parents.
Keith:  That's the norm down there. That's the norm in our community.

TNN:Where is that communiity?
Keith:  Watts and the Jordan Down housing projects.

TNN:Your friends must have really appreciated you.
Keith:  I mean, well you know, everybody had a role. You know, I just enjoyed it, so when we all got together, I always wanted to make something. I always cooked, I would find things. You know, it wasn't like it was groceries in the house, so you create from what you have and that's why I picked up my ability to create flavor and to actually use anything.

TNN:Well, in order to have a feeling or sense of what tastes good and what spices make something taste great, usually you had to have eaten really, really good food.
Keith:  Like I say, for most of the time, I was raised by my grandmother, and she's from the south and so yes, I grew up eating really great food. And that's kind of like when I cook now, I channel that, so I try to recreate them flavors. So growing up, having my granny, gave me that sense of flavor. She gave me that sense of taste and something to hone in on. Then being on my own, I learned the ability to take in different things. I don't have to have the exact recipe that she used. I can use alternative things and expand. 

TNN:I do artist meals, which are basically made up of whatever I have left in the fridge when money is tight.
Keith:  Yes, and that's the case for me. I'll say it's nothing to eat if the house is empty. If the kitchen's bare, but if there's any two or three things in there, I can create something from it.

TNN:I'm also curious about the fact that you ran with a rough crowd, because you ended up going to prison.
Keith:  Yes. I grew up in the projects, and it's a gang and drug infested area and there's no opportunity, there's no jobs, there's no resources, no income, no support. So, I mean you gotta get out there and make ends meet. And you can only act off what you know, right? If you don't know anything else... you only can practice what you know.  So if you're watching people selling drugs, if you're watching people gambling, if you're watching people robbing, if that's what you're taught, if that's what you see, if that's your education on how to make ends meet, then of course, you're gonna choose one of them paths. Right? And that was just the case. I chose my path and my path ended me up in prison for 10 years. But I was fortunate to get a job in the kitchen. So it was like this kitchen thing was just, like, my destiny. I always landed in the kitchen somewhere.  Not aiming for it or going after it, it's just like that's where I winded up landing.

TNN:You know people talk about a Higher Power and I believe an aspect of  it is one's talent. It guides you to  places where it can grow, like jobs that end up teaching skills necessary to its growth. 
Keith:  That was true with my previous lifestyle, like I had the ability to lead. I had the ability to communicate. I had the ability to problem solve. I had the ability to crisis thinking. I mean, I learned all these things, right? It may not have been taught at school...

TNN:You were given the opportunity to exercise what you instinctively knew.
Keith:  Exactly. Those things are present today, like I still have to practice. I still use those things, those qualities, no matter how I obtained them, it's what carried me through the day and it's what people notice. And also showing up, constantly knowing that other people are relying on you.

TNN:  That's why I think what you're doing is remarkable. A lot of  people want to repeat the old patterns. You were able to say, no, I'm willing to take on these new patterns, a new way of being. Did all the people who started out with you continue to function and keep the job and learn the skills or were there dropouts, problems?
Keith:  Well, like with every job, you have some that stay, you have some that can manage it. You have some that try and don't make it, but the majority of my team here at Alta started with me at Locol.  I managed them, I trained them, I taught them, I worked closely with them and now that Locol's no longer operating as a storefront, I brought them over here with me.

I mean, don't get me wrong, it's been a struggle for me. It has. And the support I have around me has been very, very patient. They know I’m growing and I appreciate that. I mean, you know, I have kids. I have grandkids. My whole thing was to change my legacy.  I wanted to change the conversations that people would have about me in regards to my life. So I had to make a decision, like if I had passed away at that moment three years ago, I wouldn't appreciate the conversations that my kids would have heard in regards to me, so that's what I've really been striving for, just changing my story.  Having these stories told about me, these new narratives, that's priceless. I've actually accomplished my goal, everything else is just like cherries on top.  If I pass today, I'm proud of the narrative my kids will have.... That's it. I've accomplished my goal. I've done it.




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Established in August of 2008 by writerartist Dianne V. Lawrence, The Neighborhood News covers the events, people, history, politics and historic architecture of communities throughout the Mid-City and West Adams area in Los Angeles Council District 10.

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