by Taylor Cochran
Queer Kentucky is a proud partner of the Lee Initiative. This is the first part of a series of stories uplifting Queer voices within the hospitality industry in partnership with the Lee Initiative.
“We started The LEE Initiative in Louisville, KY in 2018 after we saw a need for more diversity, more training, and more equality in our own industry. We wanted to redefine what it means to give back to our local community based on our research, our experiences and most of all, our instincts. We are in the business of hospitality, helping people, and solving problems. We put the needs of our guests first. So why should it be any different when we approach the complex social issues that arise in the restaurant industry?”
“Can you keep a secret?” read a notification from my DMs on Instagram. Normally, I’d be wary to open a message like that but this one came from my friend Akeem who was currently across the country in San Francisco working to revive yet another wounded restaurant concept.
“I’m surprising my mom for her birthday next weekend!” read the follow-up. A rare moment to catch Akeem at home where he was once a fixture in some of the best kitchens in town. I worked with him when bar Vetti first opened on the ground floor of Louisville’s historic mid century complex The 800 Tower, the tallest building in town until 1971 and a place that seems to be in perpetual transit not unlike Akeem himself.
So, on the eve of his mom’s birthday on a 72-hour layover, we found time to grab a coffee at Bean.
IS THIS A BAD TIME?
Akeem is the youngest of 9 and they’re all boys. He lost his father when he was only 3 years old, but with 8 older brothers bustling in and out of the house, Akeem says that he had plenty of male role models around to fill the void. They were all raised by their working single mother who still somehow found the time to teach Akeem how to correctly grate ginger and then how to turn that pile of pulp into chicken teriyaki to feed the family. It’s the first dish he ever learned how to make and he says it’s still a favorite.
Akeem cooked a lot even though he was the youngest. It was something he did for the family, not necessarily a skill he foresaw being the foundation of his future career.
“I actually wanted to be a teacher originally,” Akeem laughed, “but I didn’t take school as seriously as I should have and I remember my mom would threaten me and say that if I didn’t start taking it more seriously, I’d end up flipping burgers forever. Whoops.”
One way to annoy and burden your single mother is to get suspended from school in the middle of the day when you’re 12, which is precisely what Akeem did once upon a time. She rearranged her schedule, picked him up and started in on him for getting in trouble. Akeem took this opportunity to ask, “Is this a bad time to tell you that I like guys?” His mom took a deep breath and yelled back, “That’s not what I’m mad at you about!”
He says there was never really a formal coming out with his brothers and points to a moment in elementary school that he says probably tipped them off.
“You know those book reports we would have to give and we had to dress up as a character from the book to present it? Yeah, well, I picked Anastasia,” said Akeem.
His mom went to Goodwill in between shifts and found a peach princess dress and a ratty blonde wig to transform him into the ill-fated Russian tsarina. “I think that peach dress was my coming out moment, for real.”
Akeem’s famous Pride Pasta at bar Vetti in 2018
Even though Akeem was out in middle school, he attended a Catholic high school which made him “sprint back into the closet.” He describes those high school years as being fraught with inner turmoil because on one hand, he was proud of being out and on the other hand, he was in a new environment filled with religious discourse that told him to hide himself away. When he was 15 or 16 he got a job at a coffee shop in Southern Indiana called Perkfection. At some point he started working on the cafe side, making salads and sandwiches and in some ways, setting the course for the rest of his life.
Akeem moved to Southern California when he was 17 and worked his way through several kitchens. First in Torrance then Santa Barbara and then Los Angeles where he worked with the famed Animal restaurant group as the sous chef at Jon and Vinny’s. Like many people on that youthful search for self, Akeem found himself falling in love a lot. He fell in love with traveling, authentic Szechuan cooking, West Hollywood, and with being part of the queer community.
The sous chef at Animal was also queer and he brought Akeem into his world in Los Angeles which gave Akeem the confidence and ability to eventually forge his own path and chosen family in Los Angeles.
“In Los Angeles, you’re just surrounded by so much culture, you almost have no choice but to take it all in,” said Akeem. “ If you can’t find your crew in LA, that’s on you. There’s someone for everyone in LA. It’s a city full of personalities.”
Akeem moved back to Kentucky in 2017 where he was instantly reminded that he was a bit of an outlier as a “half-black buddhist gay guy” in the cis-male dominated kitchens of The South. He says he’s never faced anything overtly prejudiced from his coworkers but there have been times when he could tell that someone got a general sense of his queerness and treated him a bit warily until they saw him cook. “In the kitchen, all people need to know about me is what I can put on a plate and how fast I can get it there. Everything else kind of goes out the window.”
Even though part of his career certainly requires him to flip a burger every now and again, Akeem is much closer to a teacher these days. He works as a traveling consultant for Benchmark Global Hospitality and spends stretches of time getting down in the trenches with various concepts across the country digging into everything from profitability to staffing and the menu and ultimately making changes to course correct a struggling space back towards the black.
Beyond all the spreadsheets and books to balance that come with his new role, there is always the call of the kitchen. “Back of house? We’re kind of like the bad kids, miscreants who found cooking and just stuck with it,” he said. “It’s almost psychotic the dedication we have when you consider the hours, the dismal pay and respect that come along with it.”
Akeem recently wrapped the project in San Francisco where he said he had to almost immediately fire the executive chef and take on that role while they searched for a replacement on top of his other responsibilities to the restaurant. He’s currently in San Diego and next, he moves on to Chicago. Throughout all his travels, he is constantly in awe of how vast the queer community is. “You can just find pockets of us everywhere, even in the smallest towns.”