In New Memoir, Chef Keith Corbin Bares His California Soul
The Alta Adams owner gets candid about turning the scraps of poverty, drugs, and the carceral system into a culinary dream.
Chef Keith Corbin admits his origin story is far from typical. “I don’t have those examples of the Italian family where the kids are running through the kitchen and the grandmother’s rolling pasta on the table and they’re tasting it, and she’s teaching the daughter how to make dough or roll pasta, or any of that,” he shares. “The only thing I have is watching my grandmother tirelessly get up every day and prepare food for her family and for the surrounding neighborhood.”
For Corbin, who just released his first memoir, California Soul: An American Epic of Cooking and Surviving, that’s the definition of soul food. It’s the dedication displayed by his grandmother Louella Henderson, who came to LA from Alabama in the 1940s, raised eight children of her own, and then took on the care of her family and countless kids as the surrounding Watts neighborhood fell into drug-induced disrepair.
“That was one of her most joyous moments—baking cakes, cooking food,” recalls Corbin. “If it was frustrating, we never saw it. If she was tired of it because she was raising some kids that weren’t hers, we never saw it. So, even though I didn’t get any cooking lessons or recipes left behind from my grandmother, I do have what she represented in the kitchen.”
Written in collaboration with former Thrillist editor Kevin Alexander, California Soul chronicles Corbin’s upbringing that led him from the Watts projects to drug dealing, crime, and prison, and eventually, to owning Alta Adams, one of LA’s most acclaimed soul food restaurants in the historically Black neighborhood of West Adams.
Recounting Corbin’s memories of the Rodney King uprisings and other historic events, the book reminds readers that, as insurmountable as such circumstances might seem, they are often the catalyst for remarkable ingenuity. Rather than demonize the choices that lead some to drug dealing, joining gangs, and even participating in violence, Corbin underscores how such crimes are typically born of poverty and necessity, often providing security and support for those society has discarded.
“It stems from not having and being forced to make a way,” Corbin says. “I was brought up in an impoverished community and, for the most part, we were fending for ourselves. That’s why we say that there are brilliant minds in prison.”
Even when Corbin began drug dealing in his early teens, the focus was always on creating a quality product that would help set his business apart. “That’s where my mind was,” he admits. “When everybody in the projects has a dope house, it’s like, how can I separate my products from everyone else’s in order to have a chance of being successful at it?”
In the chapter titled “Kitchen,” it’s hard to read Corbin’s introduction to cooking cocaine and not think that’s where he gained some of his initial confidence as a chef. This talent only expanded while in prison, where Corbin’s reputation earned him a coveted position in the kitchen. There, he was able to distinguish himself by applying the same drive that made him a profitable drug dealer, memorizing techniques and experimenting with foods from the commissary to make spreads that were texturally interesting and full of flavor.
“Later on, 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. Some prison cooks might have just given up on it, but not me,” he writes in the book. “I’d start substituting, and inventing, and trying new things. I saw what was around me and created from it. I didn’t have a fear of failure.”
Throughout the memoir, Corbin makes clear that this past is inextricable from who he is today. He doesn’t shy away from the challenges he’s faced since leaving the carceral system either—unemployment, addiction, and PTSD, to name just a few. As it turns out, post-carceral life has a way of forcing innovation, not unlike poverty.
Corbin’s culinary dexterity is on full display at Alta Adams, which the chef first opened with Daniel Patterson, who, along with Roy Choi, gave him an early career break at LocoL’s since-closed Watts location. Here, plump shrimp fan delicately over steaming grits, deviled eggs are swirled into paprika-sprinkled hills, and collard greens are vegan yet just as luscious with flavor thanks to a dose of liquid smoke.
After all, it isn’t Corbin’s intention to recreate his Granny’s favorite dishes, but to honor the spirit she infused in her food while trailblazing his own path. Another objective is to expand the public definition of soul food, inviting it into fine dining spaces where European cuisines traditionally dominate. While this approach occasionally earns Corbin criticism from Southern tourists and transplants, their minds are typically changed upon first bite.
“Soul food doesn’t belong to any region,” Corbin asserts. “Ingredients change from West Africa through the Caribbean and through the South, from Louisiana to Alabama, to South Carolina, North Carolina, to California. What doesn’t change is the intent to nourish, sustain, and feed the souls of each other.”
That’s the California Soul he’s hinting at throughout his memoir. It might be a couple generations removed from the South proper, but a product of similar circumstances, and no less satisfying and substantive.
“If you think about our enslaved ancestors, at the end of the day, working hard for free in an environment that they didn’t want to be in and didn’t know how long it was going to last,” he muses. “With the remnants that were supposed to be taken to the trash—the gut of the pig, the tail of the beef—they were creating food to carry each other over this journey, for however long it was supposed to last.”