Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The unexpected difficulties of bring good food to blighted neighborhoods

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Daniel Duane has a long and absorbing article in the California Sunday magazine that will interest anyone who likes food. The article shows that good ideas don’t guarantee easy acceptance:

A little over a year ago, in a small building at the corner of East 103rd Street and Anzac Avenue in South Los Angeles, chef Daniel Patterson zigzagged among trainees in the bright clean kitchen of what was about to become Locol, the fast-food restaurant with a mission. Patterson was 47 years old, bone-pale and wiry, and among the most creative American chefs of his generation. He owned five restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area and had another on the way. He was also one of the cool kids of international fine dining, invited to speak at the most prestigious culinary conferences and part of a circle of friends that includes the Italian chef Massimo Bottura, the Danish chef René Redzepi, and the Australian chef Ben Shewry, owners of, respectively, the restaurants currently ranked first, fifth, and 33rd in the world.

Patterson’s trainees were almost entirely from Jordan Downs, the 714-unit public housing project in Watts. Many had never been employed before, and those with prior cooking experience had worked mostly in conventional fast food or prison cafeterias. They paid rapt attention as Patterson showed them how to weigh out patty-size balls of Locol’s signature burger blend, a pale pink combination of ground beef, tofu, barley, quinoa, and seaweed.

For the previous two years, Patterson and his partner Roy Choi, the tattooed king of L.A. food trucks, had been raising money, developing recipes, designing the Locol brand, overseeing construction, and giving presentations and interviews about their plan to disrupt the predatory corporate fast-food industry. They talked about creating a chain of gorgeous new restaurants that served healthy food at Burger King prices in so-called food deserts, impoverished communities where the only places that sell anything edible are liquor stores, convenience stores, and conventional franchises. They promised to hire from surrounding neighborhoods and pay fair wages while teaching the culinary fundamentals necessary to launch a cooking career. That first Locol, near Jordan Downs in the core territory of the Grape Street Crips, one of the most famous African American gangs in the United States, had been deliberately designed to appeal to neighborhood residents and not look like the first step toward gentrification.

Patterson and Choi were too culturally sophisticated to come out and say their expansion plans targeted other low-income African American communities, but that is what the list had come to look like. After East 103rd and Anzac, they hoped to build on the other side of Watts near the Nickerson Gardens housing project, then maybe nearby in Compton, then East Oakland, South Side Chicago, Detroit, and Ferguson, Missouri. Patterson even echoed tech culture’s obsession with scaling ideas to a thousand X, saying that he figured they might open a thousand Locols over the next five years.

To get that first Locol built, Patterson, who lives with his wife and two children in Oakland, spent half his time in Watts for more than six months while still working a full schedule of long and arduous dinner shifts at Coi, the two-Michelin-star restaurant in San Francisco at which he built his international reputation. Then, in early January 2016, Patterson permanently handed off Coi to another chef and spent nearly three straight weeks in Watts to prepare his crew for opening day.

Weaving through that kitchen, with only a week to go, Patterson found a pot of rice burning on the stove. His angular and sensitive face twitched with fury before he remembered the cardinal kitchen rule that Choi, who happened to appear just then, made for Patterson and other outsiders. To wit: “You cannot yell at people in Watts.”

“Not that we would,” said Choi, a no-nonsense presence weaving past in a black Stussy T-shirt and black ball cap.

“Well, some of the rich kids I deal with,” Patterson said, referring to his employees in San Francisco, “I have to yell to let them know I’m serious, because they’ve never known trauma or difficulties like people down here.”

“It isn’t a matter of that,” said Choi gently. “They’ve just never done this before. You can’t yell at someone for not ever doing something.”

atterson took Choi’s point to heart and said, “Their learning curve really is much faster than anything I have ever seen.” Patterson beckoned to 36-year-old Keith Corbin, who learned to cook at home and during the ten years he spent in prison. After his release, Corbin worked for a year at a Chevron oil refinery, quickly rose to manager, then quit for a supervisory job at Locol, where his mother and brother had also been hired. With an air of enduring patience, Corbin leaned close as Patterson said, “Keith, we’re going to need to get all the cooks together for a come-to-Jesus moment, because if it continues this way, we are just going to get flattened. Speaking of … I’m getting flattened. I need a coffee.”

Patterson stepped out the back door onto a sunny patio where three neighborhood men worked as “ambassadors” — greeters, really, but also unofficial security guards and community liaisons tasked with convincing neighbors that Locol really was for them. Watts has such a deep history of economic betrayal and abandonment, such pervasive skepticism about outsiders making big promises, and such well-founded fear of gentrification — a billion-­dollar “urban transformation” plan has the support of Mayor Eric Garcetti — that acceptance of a splashy new restaurant created by two famous outsider chefs who are not African American was not a given.

Patterson embraced an ambassador named Anthony “Ant” Adams, a 44-year-old poet who was in the middle of telling a visitor about getting shot five times with an AK-47 during a 2007 attempt on his life a few yards from where he was currently standing. Patterson then walked past an ATM/lottery/tobacco shop where floor-to-ceiling bulletproof Plexiglas separated customers from the cashier and inventory. He entered a store called Donut Town & Water, where a young man sold doughnuts, water, and other convenience foods, also from behind Plexiglas. Patterson ordered coffee to go and said, as if exhilarated by the speed and audacity of his own thoughts, “I can’t remember if I told you that Roy and I might start a coffee company, too. We’re bringing back the great $1 cup. The fancy coffee industry is not going to be happy with us. We’re going into institutional food, too. We’re already talking about prisons and hospitals and schools. It all comes back to this question of ‘Why does our society always serve the worst food to the neediest people?’ It makes no sense. And everybody always says, ‘That’s just the way it is, there’s no other way,’ but we are going to prove that whole paradigm is fundamentally false.” . . .

Continue reading. There’s a lot more.

Written by Leisureguy

7 April 2017 at 11:36 am

Posted in Business, Daily life, Food

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