As Louisville awaits news of an investigation into the death of Breonna Taylor, a community kitchen works on hope for generational change.
By Nikkia Rhodes as told to Michele Herrmann
Nikkia Rhodes is head chef of the McAtee Community Kitchen, which operates out of the defunct MilkWood restaurant at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. The kitchen is named for David McAtee, a Louisville barbecue chef who was shot and killed by a Kentucky National Guard soldier during protests over the police killing of Breonna Taylor. Established through the LEE Initiative, the kitchen opened in June 2020 and provides 250 meals for families of four three days a week. Rhodes is also a culinary arts instructor at Iroquois High School in Louisville.
I started working with Chef Edward Lee—co-founder of the LEE Initiative—in 2015 through his Smoke & Soul program, which focused on training youth in all aspects of the restaurant industry. And it taught me a lot. It was my first real big introduction to working in this industry, and I completed that program in March of 2016.
When Edward announced the Women Chefs Initiative program on Instagram on January 18, 2018, I thought, “wow, that’s so cool.” We would get to cook at the James Beard House. We received a scholarship to attend the Southern Foodways Alliance Summer Symposium in Lexington in 2018, and we were also given the chance to speak there. And I didn’t know what all of that meant in reading the post initially. So I was kind of hesitant. I was working towards becoming an educator, and I wasn’t thinking that that program would benefit me because I wasn’t working directly in the restaurant industry.
It took Lindsey Ofcacek—managing director and cofounder of the LEE Initiative—explaining to me more in detail what that program really meant, and the opportunities that it could mean for me. I had a week before the deadline, and still, she encouraged me to apply. And I remember the weekend that she called me and told me that I was accepted.
At the end of May 2020, when all the protests in response to the shooting of Breonna Taylor began, Lindsey and Edward went to a healing ceremony. I went to a few of the protests on the first three or four days in. And Lindsey talked with me about what we could do to be something good for the community. Not everyone is called to go and protest and be on the front lines. We can all show our ways of caring, of trying to make positive change, in different ways.
For us, the most natural way was food. Louisville has quite a few pockets in the city where they’re considered to be under food apartheid. Or there’s one grocery store, and there are the elderly people who can’t get to it. So we decided that we wanted to do a community kitchen.
Originally we were talking about naming it after Breonna Taylor, who went to my high school—Western High School. I did not know Breonna directly. But when I heard about what happened to her, I immediately was like, that could be me. I connected with that, and knowing that she’s a fellow Warrior—that’s a really painful case.
The night of June 1 is when the Kentucky National Guard appeared at YaYa’s BBQ and Chef David McAtee was killed. Later on that same night, the Kroger’s grocery on Louisville’s West End about two blocks from YaYa’s got looted. This was when a lot of low-income families receive their benefits, and they go grocery shopping and prepare for the month. For that Kroger’s to be closed, it was like another very traumatic thing happened. And our community is already suffering. People are losing their jobs and struggling to make ends meet, and now their only grocery store is closed.
We basically had to mobilize. There was a big movement called Feed the West, which is a network of people who decided to get a lot of groceries together. They’re still going on today. The community also came together immediately to fix Kroger’s back up so that it could reopen.
That’s how we got the idea to name the community kitchen after Chef McAtee. Edward spent time with his family to make sure that we were being respectful and getting their permission. With me, I just wanted to feed the community. Also, my students didn’t have the rest of their culinary training at Iroquois High School. We missed out on three months. So Lindsey and I talked about how we could provide employment for some of them, an opportunity for them to make up for some of those skills that they didn’t get to do, and also a safe way for them to participate in social justice and change in their city.
On Mondays, we’ll go to the Dare to Care food bank. We get a lot of our food from there to try to keep the cost of running the kitchen down. We have a truck on loan from Ashbourne Farms every Monday, and they take all the food from Dare to Care that we’re going to cook to our kitchen. So we’re basically “backwards-menu” planned—we see what we’ve got, and then we decide what we’re going to make. We do have a small budget where if we need to supplement ingredients, we can get them.
We start prepping our food, and it goes into nine-inch aluminum pans so that people can reheat them easily. Those meals go into insulated bags, and they’re stacked very carefully with layers in between them to keep everything straight. Then we have one or two of our kitchen staff load them into a car and take them to our two drop-off locations on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, from four to five.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, we prep for the next day. It just keeps rotating. We get the shipment of food in, and then we cook it, and we make it happen. And then it’s like, all right, let’s start over.
We try to do something barbecue-related every week to honor Chef McAtee because that’s what he did. We’ve done meatloaf, smoked brisket, and Cajun catfish and potato wedges. We baked cornbread for Juneteenth. The Berry Center has helped us get rose veal each week, so that has been really awesome to work with. Emie Dunagan, a Women Chefs Initiative mentee, made cookies and donated them to us, so we provided a barbecue meal and dessert that day. That was really cool!
I didn’t know Chef McAtee personally. I never ate at YaYa’s. I saw pictures of him working in the Volunteers of America family shelter, which my mom used to manage when I was growing up. I spent a lot of time in that kitchen, knowing that his business had taken so much time and energy and effort to maintain—and to build the reputation that he did. But also to know that he would take his time to still go and prepare food for the shelter, and make sure that people had food, I wanted to make sure that we carried on that legacy.
A lot of people knew who David McAtee was. They ate his food. He fed police officers for free, and the irony in that, it hurts. But I think that for a lot of people, it’s just a reminder of what we’re fighting for, and that we have to keep fighting because it could be any of us at any time.
I have three people who are not my students working at the community kitchen. One of them has a lot of kitchen experience, and I thought they would do really well. Another one is really passionate about the Black Lives Matter movement and wanted to get involved in some way. Another person wanted to work with youth.
I had four students work with me over the summer, and now I have three. For most of them, it is their first job. I’ve had kids no-call, no-show, or text me at 11 p.m. saying they can’t come to work tomorrow. Or text me at 9 a.m., saying “Hey, I’m gonna be two hours late.” Well, yeah, you’re already supposed to be here. But we give them the space to do that. I tell them, “Hey, this is what you did. I want you to know that at another job, this is how this might go. I’m gonna give you another chance, but I want you to learn from this.” So that part’s been really rewarding, and so is seeing them grow in their confidence in the kitchen.
For my first year as a Jefferson County Public Schools teacher and of the culinary program at Iroquois High School, they wanted to hire a teacher before they built the kitchen. We met in a very large room that had two projectors. They said, “Engage them, teach them what you can until next year.” So that’s what I did. We did PowerPoint notes every day about food safety and food handling and career opportunities. I would try to have guest speakers come in from the fire department and health inspection, and also Sysco reps. Over the summer of 2019 was when a full commercial kitchen was constructed. Then the 2020 school year comes, and we’re all amped up, and we got this new kitchen. And then COVID hit and we didn’t get to finish out our year.
I had a lot of great mentors in school through teachers, and, of course, Edward and Lindsey. That’s what led me to wanting to be a culinary teacher. In 2015, while I was in high school, I started working at MilkWood right around Derby time. I survived Derby Weekend, so they were like all right, she’s good to go. Properly initiated and baptized by fire.
I was there for about a year, and then I worked at 610 Magnolia for a little bit, learning about front-of-house and upscale dining. To have my students starting off in the same space that I did, with the same mentors that I have—I feel like it’s really powerful.
We’re always looking for volunteers for our drop-off locations. Because of COVID-19, we try to keep all of our kitchen staff to the kitchen so we’re not directly exposed to the public while we’re preparing food. So we always need volunteers to help us pass out the food and be the face and the friendly smile of the kitchen.
Monetary donations are always accepted. If people are local and they are growing out of their ears in tomatoes and they want to send us tomatoes, we’ll figure out a use for them in the kitchen. Also, we could use simple things like water bottles and masks.
I see this kitchen as being something that I want to keep going for a long time until it’s not needed anymore. I want all aspects of it to grow—not just the people we feed, but the youth we employ, and the next generation of chefs that we inspire in our community.
With COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, and social justice, we have to keep this momentum going. We have to keep our conversations going. It can’t just be a trending topic. It has to be something that we really will change.