The Underground Chefs of South L.A.
Inside the kitchens of home cooks who are dreaming up everything from “urban tacos” to gumbo pot pie
The parking lot of Millenium Shoes, a sneaker emporium in Inglewood, was packed. From afar, it looked like a music festival. Hip-hop played over the speakers, and the line to get in, even by the end of the day, was 40 to 50 people long. But up close, everyone was eating. Banana pudding. Fries topped with chicken and barbecue ranch sauce. Garlic shrimp noodles. Turkey and pastrami sliders. The event, called The Block: Urban Gastronomy Experience, was the first of its kind, a chance for people to try food from different underground chefs all in one place.
Underground economies have long existed in South L.A., the 50-square-mile region below Interstate 10. They arose to provide things that otherwise weren’t readily available —healthy food, for one. Enterprising individuals sold home-cooked meals, often at barber shops and churches, or out of their own homes.
Then, a few years ago, a new wave of black underground chefs began to emerge, posting their dishes for sale on Instagram. “We don’t have Mastro’s, Ruth’s Chris, or Ocean Prime in Compton, none of those nice five-star restaurants that the other side of the I-10 freeway has. We live in the ghetto,” says Malachi Jenkins, the chef behind Trap Kitchen, one of a handful of establishments, along with All Flavor No Grease, The Bléu Kitchen, and Taco Mell, that’s credited with ushering in the latest movement of creative underground food. These pioneers have amassed hundreds of thousands of followers and fans, including Kendrick Lamar, Tyga, and Snoop Dogg. A few have even opened food trucks or brick-and-mortar stores with licensing from the county Department of Public Health.
More than a dozen chefs, mostly in their 20s and 30s, count themselves part of South L.A.’s underground scene. They post the day’s offerings, and within minutes, the orders come tumbling in. Some deliver, others designate pickup spots — their homes, parking lots, street corners — or sell under the table at convenience stores. Here, five of them take us inside their kitchens.