Chef Keith Corbin’s epic journey from the housing projects to food-world stardom

The summer sun beating down on the Jordan Downs housing project in Watts, Los Angeles, is unrelenting.

Long ago it dried up the grass between the low-slung buildings, and now it radiates off the harsh surfaces – the concrete, the dumpsters that line the streets, the metal security panels covering the windows and doors of the many vacancies that dot the housing complex. It all adds to the sweltering Southern California heat.  

For decades, Jordan Downs was the home of Keith Corbin, one of the most acclaimed new chefs in the country. It has not been an easy road for the L.A. native and co-owner of the restaurant Alta, a “Californian soul food” sensation in the West Adams neighborhood – nor a conventional one. 

As he writes at the very beginning of his unflinching memoir, “California Soul: An American Epic of Cooking and Survival,” he was born into the drug world of Watts. His mother was pregnant with him as she served part of a drug sentence, and by his teens he himself was cooking and slinging crack.

While he was bookish and curious at school, drugs and gangs still seemed like the only way, he says.

Tragedy touched his life too many times. He pauses at a sidewalk with the names of kids scrawled in concrete from 30 years ago, when it was fresh and newly laid — an archeology of his peers. “I can’t believe how many of these have passed,” he says. 

The landscape has changed, he says. The smells he remembers from Watts are gone. He fears gentrification will keep displacing the community he loves. He points to his old house, which he shared with his grandmother, Louella Henderson, and the street outside, where he and his friends used to roll, “forty deep.”

But now, “It’s empty. You know? Yeah. You don’t see the kids runnin’ no more. They’ve taken everything from us. They’ve taken everything from the community.”

His life has moved on, to the upscale neighborhood of Westwood, and his restaurant in West Adams. But he keeps coming back to the project, determined not to give up on those left behind.

“No matter how high my tree grow, or where it bends and hovers over, my roots are always in the same place,” he says.

His tree has grown high. After years of running drugs, jail time and setbacks — partly brought about by his own talent for self-sabotage, he admits — his prison kitchen experience and considerable charm impressed the famed chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson. They took him on to help run LocoL, a restaurant initiative to bring high-quality, affordable fare to food deserts like Watts, staffed by people from the community. They refused to give up on him.

When LocoL eventually folded — after empowering several alumni to go on to form their own businesses — Corbin partnered again with Patterson to found Alta in 2018.

Since then it has grown in stature and reputation, garnering plaudits from the press and the public, and hosting A-listers like Jay Z, John Legend, Puffy and the cast of “Black-ish,” among others.

“Prison cooking didn’t prepare me for this, growing up cooking didn’t prepare me for this — cooking drugs didn’t prepare me for this,” he says, laughing. 

At the helm of his thriving restaurant, Corbin is determined to give back to the community that nurtured him. 

“I don’t hire from Cordon Bleu. I hire from the projects.  We have a high turnover rate, yes, and it takes a lot of time and patience to train these people that have never had a job before. And some get a — get their first check, see it — ‘woo,’ they gone. [But] it’s, like, if we don’t do it, who will? Nobody.”

He has made a remarkable success in his corner of West Adams, a neighborhood that has seen some of the gentrification that Corbin sees encroaching on his beloved Watts.

His food is an updated version of what Grandma Louella cooked for him in his youth, often using his memories and his palate to recreate those familiar flavors, while adding his unique signature.

“There was no recipe book left behind. So whenever creating dishes, especially something that I literally had in my childhood, it’s how do I get to that flavor, but trailblazing my own path, right?”

Oxtail, rich and stewed, rice and red beans, gumbo, succulent fried chicken under a crackling skin, and – above all – cakes.

“Cake was important because I — I’ve never ate dinner or had food growing up at my granny’s,  in my childhood, where I didn’t have a piece of cake at the end.”

As he says in “California Soul,” when he opened his own spot, whatever else was on the menu, he promised, “there will be cake.”

His has not been a conventional path, and he’s rightly proud of his fiery determination, of finally overcoming his demons, and of forging his own way. He’s had help but ultimately it is his triumph — and he did it with no recipe book left behind. No set of instructions, carefully measured ingredients or exact steps to success. Not in life, and not the kitchen.