Why you should care
Because there are many ways to change a neighborhood.
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When I first talk to Malachi “Spankihanas” Jenkins, he’s cooking up pineapples and lobster at Snoop Dogg’s compound in Inglewood, California. He and his partner, Roberto “News” Smith, are two of the unlikeliest hot (and haute) chefs in American cuisine right now. Over the past few months, Jenkins and Smith have cooked for everyone from Kendrick Lamar to Kobe Bryant, seen their business triple in revenue in 2016 alone and become local celebrities in their south Los Angeles neighborhood.
Jenkins and Smith’s upstart, Trap Kitchen LA, is a plate-by-plate catering service started in 2013 in a cramped apartment kitchen in Compton. Alongside the likes of Bronx-based culinary upstarts Ghetto Gastro, Trap Kitchen is flipping the script on not just soul food, but the whole restaurant industry. They cook for locals and celebrities alike, charging $10 a plate and selling upward of 100 meals every day, all with a staff of just two and headquarters in home kitchens.
In south Los Angeles, gourmet, healthy and organic food is hard to come by, and even harder to afford. The area is classified as a “food desert” by the USDA, meaning grocery options are lacking and fast-food chains dot most corners. South LA maintains the highest obesity rate in Los Angeles county, according to the Department of Public Health. Trap Kitchen’s addressi
A few years ago, Jenkins and Smith were on a very different path. After moving to south LA from the west side as a kid, Jenkins learned to cook by making dinner for his younger sister while their single mom worked late. Although officially in Crips territory, he skirted gang affiliation because of his mother, who earned Malachi the name “Spanky” — she would physically drag him home if he stayed out too late. As a youth, Jenkins made acquaintances with a kid named “Bad News” Smith, a distant relative from a friendlier branch of the opposing Piru Blood faction. As young adults, the guys bounced through uninspiring jobs as cashiers, auto detailers and ice cream men, and hustled everything from jewelry to hair weaves to drugs, racking up arrests for petty crimes and narcotics possession in the process.
In every community, there is a genius element, but that element is not given opportunity. … People have to come up with alternative ways to use their genius.
Frederick Douglass Opie
At the same time, Jenkins had eyes set on a different future. He enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu in Las Vegas. But he couldn’t quite leave his ’hood. While visiting home in 2010, Malachi witnessed his friend’s murder by gunshot during a gang-related scuffle. It stuck with him. After a period of exile in Portland, he realized escaping LA wasn’t the answer — changing it was. In 2013, Jenkins reconnected with Smith, who was fresh out of jail for marijuana possession and looking for a way to turn his street hustle legitimate, even removing the “Bad” prefix from his street name as a signal of his intent. Together they formed Trap Kitchen; its name is an acronym for “Take Risks and Prosper.”
“Food is a social thing, man!” smiles Jenkins as he takes a break from manning the grill. The scent of plump shrimp drenched in sweet glazes and charred meats sizzles in the background. “You can cook and talk at the same time. … As long as you know what you’re doing!” Smith, the quieter of the two, is focused on prep, but nods along to Jenkins’ statements. They’ve become regulars in Snoop Dogg’s kitchen, though they hustle me out quickly. They’ve made it here thanks to smart marketing: Every day, Chef Jenkins posts food porn on Instagram. They take orders by text message and Kev, TKLA’s official DJ and delivery service, distributes. It’s the same method they used to sell drugs back in the day. “Business is business, man. It’s still the same chemistry, still the same math, still the same blueprint, no matter what product you have,” Jenkins explains. “It’s all about marketing strategy, good quality product, and supply and demand.”
Both the Crips and the Bloods pick up food at Trap Kitchen, though they don’t much dine together — yet.
To Frederick Douglass Opie, professor of history at Babson College in New York and host of the Food as a Lens podcast, Trap Kitchen is an example of an essential social process for the development of marginalized communities. “In every community, there is a genius element, but that element is not necessarily respected or given opportunity. … People have to come up with alternative ways to use their genius,” Opie says. Jenkins and Smith also offer a positive model for Black male adulthood — much needed, Opie says. Jenkins says gang intervention is part of TKLA’s mission; members of both the Crips and the Bloods come to hang at Trap Kitchen when they pick up food, though they don’t often dine together — yet.
As for what’s next? As they grow, they’ll have to pass health and safety regulations. Smith chimes in: “We just wanted to make money!” For now, they still do delivery and catering, but Smith says they dream of making the operation into a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Looming is the eternal question: Does making it require losing your roots? Should TKLA fulfill their ambitions of becoming big caterers or restaurateurs, they may be challenged by those who suggest their success erodes their affinity to their neighborhood. Jenkins is unconcerned: “Whatever they throw at us, we brush that shit off and find a way around it anyway.”