Catering is in Chef Ikeena Reed’s blood. But that doesn’t mean she heeded the call to work with food right away. Despite being from a family whose gatherings were always centered around food and recalling that her mother and uncle, as well as another aunt and uncle, each owned catering businesses when she was growing up, her childhood dream was to be a marine scientist.
That is until Chef Ikeena discovered that she’d have to get on a boat and swim in the wide, open ocean. Although she was a competitive swimmer for 13 years, she realized that her love of water while being in the swimming pool did not quite translate to being out in the depths of the ocean. So after high school she began taking college courses, still unsure whether she should lean more toward the liberal arts, where she could express some of her creativity, or focus on anthropology. Even with these varied interests, something else was calling to her.
“This food thing was tugging at me. I had a good sense of what went together,” she said. “what tasted good and how to make it beautiful.”
She’d spent much of her childhood peeking over the table to see what the caterers in the family were making and watching another uncle, who was a cruise ship chef, design elaborate spreads, complete with carved fruit and vegetables.
“I knew it was really, really special. I would always be the kid who was not looking for candy at the grocery store. I was the kid that said ‘What are those mushrooms?’”
It also didn’t hurt that members of the family were willing to experiment and try some things they hadn’t had before, like calamari or lobster mushrooms.
Eventually the food gene kicked in and Chef Ikeena found herself at the California Culinary Academy (CCA) in San Francisco, but she still wasn’t sure that there was a place for her in the food industry. Instead, after graduating from CCA, Chef Ikeena began working in the non-profit world where she made her way into development and fundraising and climbed the proverbial ladder. She was good at it. She rose to an executive level position and even had sole responsibility for a $45 million fundraising campaign. And yet something was missing.
Realizing that non-profit management was “not what makes me happy in the morning,” Chef Ikeena decided to make the leap and leave her job, taking a sabbatical to figure out what she wanted. This despite the fact that she’d been moonlighting as a caterer the entire time she’d been fundraising, Chef Ikeena still wasn’t quite ready to accept her calling.
“Catering was my way to express myself artistically, and I needed it. It was fun. I would always do it because it was fun, but I always treated it as something I did on the side.”
It took a trip halfway around the world for Chef Ikeena to begin heeding the call. She took three months off and hopped a plane to Australia, where, she says, every road led to…food. During her time there, she helped the friends she stayed with eat better and introduced them to new cooking techniques. She even ended up volunteering at an organic farm in exchange for room and board for part of her time on the continent, and yet she still wasn’t quite sure what she should do.
“I came back home, and even in the last week I was there and on the plane back to the States, I don’t think I knew. But when I got home, something just clicked and I knew.”
Chef Ikeena chose catering because of the freedom it allows her, providing the time to prepare things in a methodic way, add personal or artistic touches that she wouldn’t have time for if she were working the line in a restaurant. She also wanted to do something that would allow her to indulge her love of travel and let her inform her menus and experiences with what she learns from traveling.
A native and life-long resident of Oakland, Ikeena enrolled in the Women’s Initiative program there, which allowed her to put her dream into motion, developing a business plan for Keena’s Kitchen along the way. Part way through the program, she decided she wanted to also add personal chef services as well as have an educational component to her business where she could exercise her interests in food justice issues and also teach healthy cooking techniques within the community.
Chef Ikeena prefers to keep her services on the intimate side, catering to crowds of 150 and under or doing intimate dinners for couples or small groups, specializing in organic, California soul food, which she’s even trademarked as “Keena’s California Soul Cuisine.” To handle the volume catering demands, she currently rents commercial space out of Kitchener Oakland. She has recently also taken on an assignment with 18 Reasons, where she will be teaching cooking classes to teens in Oakland. Although Chef Ikeena works primarily by herself, she does have part-time staff and other female caterers in the area that she calls on when she needs help.
“I have a partnership with some female chefs in the area, where we rely on each other for support, include each other for larger projects or give each other projects we can’t take. I have access to a poll of help that’s very experienced. It’s been a beautiful thing to have that network and support, just beautiful. I love them so much, it’s almost naïve how we decided we were going to do it and what has come out of it for me. It’s working.”
Although making the move back to food has required some sacrifice, it’s been worth the changes she’s made.
“When all is said and done and you have fulfilled every need or desire in your life, you will cast only true votes to love more and be happy. That’s a quote from Hafiz,” she said. “That’s what I’m striving towards.”
Chef Ikeena is also packaging and selling spice rubs she’s created. She’ll be at the Eat Real Festival in Oakland this weekend selling them there.
What drew you to food?
I’ve always had a deeply rooted connection to food. My parents and larger family were really into food. All our family gatherings centered around food. I was the first generation to be born in California on my father’s side. There was a boom and a high level of excitement about what was readily available in terms of food when they arrived [in California]. I was not only watching, but eating, the fruits of all that experimentation and discovery. We would have weekend outings to the South Bay, to Frontier Village [a now defunct amusement park] or Great America, visiting fruit stands along the way. There was this intrinsic path that we followed on these weekends and they were centered around food.
Frontier Village was a place where you could pick fruit and our extended family would go in large groups in a caravan, and we’d pick cherries, nuts, berries – there were a lot of orchards down there. Some of the transplants from the great migration from the South, their experience was picking fruit for money. Our family didn’t have to do that, but we brought a lot home and then prepared them in Southern fashion—canned goods, jams, preserving things, nuts shelled, and then stored for Christmas time. Even in my very, very, very young days there was this huge connection to food. So it’s no surprise that I would be interested in it in my adolescence, teens and in my college days.
Why catering and why soul food?
Initially when I started I was going to coin my own cuisine. In order to do that, to get trademark approval you need to be using and familiar with the terminology around that cuisine. I make California Soul Cuisine, which is an expression of my experience growing up here—one foot in the South and one foot here and with my elders. When you can recall your great-grandmother showing you how to pick greens in her front yard, I’d say you have one foot in one place and one foot in the other. So, yes, it’s soul food but very California–using the bounty available here, taking it through slow food steps that took root in the South, and my personal step around organics, local and sustainable eating.
Where does your food inspiration come from?
I think it comes from that desire to help…my desire to help. It makes me very sad that when we look at racial disparities—in health and infant mortality rates, drug use and all these things, terminal illnesses—it makes me really sad that African-Americans are always at the top of that list.
I feel that I have a social responsibility to educate those around me about how we used to do it. I don’t want people to think I decided soul food isn’t healthy, and we’re going to change it and this is what we’re doing now. My message is—there was a time when all food was organic. This level of access to healthy food, this change that we’ve seen in the landscape of soul food has nothing to do with how we initially prepared these recipes if you go back to the history and see how these things were prepared. These foods were made to sustain bodies that were taking on a lot of physical strain and punishment and in that regard they were healthy. The idea is that soul food, it sustained bodes that built this country for many, many years and they still do. What changed was our agriculture, our medical systems–a pill for everything and giving antibiotics to our animals.
I’m here to say and show in my work that, using organic, non-GMO ingredients in the ways they were meant to be used and the portion size they were meant to be eaten, soul food couldn’t be any more healthy.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten along the way in building your business? What advice would you have for others?
The best piece of advice I’ve gotten was don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t because you don’t have. What I mean by this is, because you don’t have x, y, and z that you can’t do that, you need this to do that, you need this to do this. If you are diligent and passionate about something and get out there and start talking about it, you’ll notice that doors will open up for you. I’m not saying that it won’t take effort. Keep putting it out there, and you’ll see those doors and they’ll keep getting closer.
What I would say to people is take your time. I know that we’re so in a hurry to see our businesses succeed, and we’re passionate and we want to see success and you want it to work. But take your time, set very clear goals and follow the path that will get you there. We worry so much about the details and all the little things that are not always directly related to the big picture. I was so caught up in the details last year—I’d written the business plan and made all these goals and never stopped to look at the plan at the quarter- or half-way mark or realize that by the new year or Dec. 28 I had exceeded all the goals on the business plan. But I didn’t know it until it was tax time, and I’m looking at the business plan and I hadn’t even stopped to congratulate myself. I’d exceeded goals I’d set for myself and never took the time to acknowledge it. It was ridiculous. I’m so worried. But look what I did!
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
Getting and keeping clients is the hardest part of this business for a number of reasons. Service professions are tough to maintain, tough to keep fresh and exciting enough for people to gravitate towards. I know when I when I left the non-profit, I cut out my gym membership and I cut out all these things that were out of my means. There’s a very real thing going on in the underbelly of this country where there’s a lot of people still unemployed and there are not as many people that are able to retain your service as there might be otherwise.
What is the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
Freedom. I have the opportunity to express myself every single day. I have more than one opportunity every single day to connect with other people in a way that feels genuine and real, and I’m not merely existing anymore, I’m actually living my life. I feel alive in what I’m doing, and I feel that.
What’s your favorite item on your menu?
I have two things. I’m really impressed with my collard green recipe, the reason being because everybody has something bad to say about the way [greens are] made and not being healthy. I’m taking after my mother’s greens. I cut the greens in ½-in. thick ribbons and make them with shaved fennel, sautéed in a combination of raw, pressed olive and hempseed oil with a little salt and pepper, deglazed with white wine and smash some garlic in them. That’s it. These are not your mama’s collard greens.
Barbeque shrimp and grits is the other. I use an heirloom variety of grits, and they cook up really nicely—nice and tender. I use raw butter at the very end of the preparation. I use my own spice rub for the shrimp, clean ‘em up and dry rub them, then they sit for a few hours, then I grill them. I deglaze with stock and do a pan sauce. A little salt, just with water. With that quality of products you don’t have to mask them—they speak volumes for themselves. These grits are milled to order—they go to the mill, and they send and ship them to me.
What other local food artisans do you admire? Why?
Chef Maggie Lawson—The Heirloom Chef. I’m her biggest fan, I don’t even think she knows it. I love how she is a builder of community. She believes so much in this city [Oakland] and the communities within. She has such a reverence for the culture here and the mix of people who are here and that translates into what she does. I’ve worked with her, and she’s just amazing. She knows how to work with problems in the community and turn them around and get people to work together. She has a really good grasp of how to do that.
I would also include Sophia Chang [of Kitchener Oakland]. Sophia Chang is about loving people. She can see your potential when you can’t. She’s a cultivator of dreams. That is her station in our community—she cultivates dreams and helps people to realize their potential. She’s very good at spotting it, taking it out and saying ‘Boom! Look at this world!’ At every step of the way, she’s not doing it for her own self. She’s really about creating pathways for other people to shine in a very heart-centered and unselfish way, every step of the way moving from her heart. Every step, every accomplishment so humble and so giving.
Chef Saqib Keval, the People’s Grocery. He is about providing resources, especially to communities that don’t have access otherwise. So he came here to Oakland and sat this vision in the middle of West Oakland, where people would not come, other to catch BART into the city, and is offering fresh food to people in that community and impacting their experience every day and he’s offering opportunities for people to get into food businesses. He’s incubating over there. You can get pieces of support in his program and have access to various things as you transition out—funding, grants, resources—things that help you get your footing and build a business that is a bit more fortified in its inception and development so you can sustain. Some programs don’t give you the tools to get beyond the business plan. He’s about the [things] that bring it to sustainability—not only you, but other people. I admire him very much for that.
If you had to choose your last meal, what would it be?
I know what it is. I’ve always known what it is. A full barbeque rack of lamb, for myself. I don’t want to share it, I don’t want anyone to even cut it, I’ll do it myself. And I want it medium rare, not a minute more. Some kind of sauce. Maybe it doesn’t even need sauce. Definitely smothered Yukon Gold potatoes and brown butter brussel sprouts. I could go to heaven after that.
Favorite Bay Area food/resto/chef?
My favorite restaurant is 1300 Fillmore, no doubt about that. David Lawrence—I’m incredibly inspired by him. Such an imaginative and playful approach to soul food cooking. Without being a snob, he really showcases the fact that he’s Cordon Bleu trained, and it’s showcased and evident in every single dish. And they’re gracious—you’re treated so well there, the service is amazing.
All recipes and photos copyright of Foie Gras and Funnel Cakes unless otherwise noted.