In 2018, Alta Adams opened on what was then a relatively sleepy stretch of Adams Boulevard between Fairfax and La Brea avenues in L.A. Keith Corbin, who grew up in Watts, has been the restaurant’s executive chef since day one, and in November, he’ll celebrate five years with that title. He’s added some other descriptors to his resume in that time as well, including co-owner of Alta, James Beard Award nominee, published author (his memoir, “California Soul: An American Epic of Cooking and Survival,” debuted last year) and father to his fourth child, Samuel, who is now 18 months old.
I spoke with Corbin long ago, back when he was testing recipes for Alta Adams in the kitchen at Roy Choi’s and Daniel Patterson’s restaurant Locol in Watts. He told me how he’d grown up eating his grandmother’s cooking and watching her feed their neighbors in the Jordan Downs projects, how he’d fallen into gang life and spent time in prison, cooking with bare-bones ingredients like salt and onion powder while there, and how Locol was his lifeline after that, hiring him despite his record — though he did try to quit a number of times.
“When I first got my job at Locol, I didn’t treasure the opportunity,” Corbin tells me recently. “There was no example for me. In the culinary world, I didn’t see anyone who came from where I came from, took this path and was able to obtain some level of success or even just make it out of their situation.”
Corbin persisted and broke barriers, despite obstacles he once saw as insurmountable. Alta Adams and the delicious dishes he cooks there continue to be loved and supported by its immediate community and beyond, topping best-of lists regularly with the chef’s “California Soul” food. Big hitters remain the cornbread with honey butter — “Order this right away, as a palette cleanser,” he says — black-eyed pea fritters, fried chicken with Fresno hot sauce and oxtails with rice.
Corbin isn’t just making moves in the kitchen. He’s standing tall as the example he wishes he’d had. He connects with readers of his memoir, some of them in prison or recently released, who see themselves reflected in him. He speaks to youth in Watts, candidly sharing stories from his own childhood and hoping to shine a light on the idea that every generation, given commitment and courage, has an opportunity to carve its own path. Even then, success isn’t immediate or guaranteed, Corbin says. He counts himself among the lucky.
“A lot of chefs work incredibly hard and restaurants fail,” he says. “There has to be some type of divine intervention here. You plan, you prepare, but at the end of the day, when you open those doors, you’re rolling the dice.”
Many would argue that Corbin’s cooking is divine intervention, or at least a magnificent representation of eating in Los Angeles. Take a newer offering, for example: a jerk-spiced plantain taco with fresh cilantro, jicama, red onion, lime juice and mango habanero salsa that Corbin calls “crazy good” — a sort of love letter to the cuisines of Black and Brown people in Los Angeles. A blackened salmon served with potato salad and curry broth is another fresh favorite, and for summer, Corbin is leaning into farmers’ market treasures and his love of vinaigrette, serving a salad of baby spinach, endives, chicory, shaved fennel, strawberries, feta and his own grilled onion vinaigrette dressing, which he shares here.
“People don’t understand the versatility of vinaigrettes,” he says. “You can do whatever you want with them if you keep to the basic principle of two-to-one oil to acid.”
If dinner is at home, chances are low that the chef is making anything fancy. In fact, his family usually wants burritos, and they will remind him to leave his restaurant tricks out of it.
“‘Now is not the time to experiment,’ they tell me. No brines, no marinades, no twists, no turns. They just want the basics.”
Keith Corbin’s Onion Vinaigrette
“I look at it like this: If I want to add a component to my salad, I can do that via the dressing. For example, I like onion in my salad, but I don’t want people to actually bite into onion. So, you pull the idea and see how else you can use it. I roast an onion until it’s sweet and caramelized, then blend it up and put that in the vinaigrette with some spices. You can play with it.”
200 grams olive oil
125 grams champagne vinegar (can substitute white wine vinegar, if needed)
40 grams lemon juice
75 grams onion puree
17 grams salt
8 grams pepper
- Take one onion and grill, smoke, roast, sweat or caramelize it, whichever method you prefer. The goal is to cook/soften the onion to bring out its sweetness.
- Blend your cooked onion, or mince it for more texture, and measure out 75 grams.
- Combine onion puree with other ingredients above, whisk and use to dress your salad.
- Include bitter lettuces in your mix — frisée, endive, chicory — to balance the sweetness from the vinaigrette.
The above amounts will dress a very large salad, so feel free to half the recipe for a salad for four people. Even then, you will have leftovers. That’s a good thing, as Corbin says it tends to taste even better the next day. Jar it up, refrigerate and use within a week.