On the season premiere of Top Chef Portland, Chef Kiki Louya made an impression on me. Not only was I excited that she was a Black women competing for the title, but I realized that she was a fellow spice lover. For the first challenge, contestants were tasked with cooking with a food item that they could not live without. Louya’s choice was scotch bonnet pepper, a fiery pepper that appeared to represent her Congolese heritage. I knew she was a winner then, and I am so happy to have had the chance to interview her.
While the show helped provide Chef Kiki Louya with a national platform, she has been spicing up the restaurant industry for years. She broke barriers as the co-founder of two successful Detroit eateries that focused on “social justice, local agriculture and food justice.” For this, she was named one of “16 Black Chefs Changing Food in America” by the New York Times. Now, Louya is focused on advancing more systemic change as the Executive Director of Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation. I look forward to witnessing all that she achieves.
An Interview with Chef Kiki Louya
Tell me about yourself. When did you start cooking, and what made you fall in love with it?
My mother is from the American South and my dad is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. So, food in its many forms was a big part of our family growing up. From an early age, I wanted to help out in the kitchen and learn how to make things on my own.
Did you go to culinary school or learn the ropes in restaurant kitchens?
Both. I started working in food at 15 years old. But it wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I decided to go to culinary school.
From the perspective of a Detroit native, what is the culinary scene like, particularly as it relates to African-American cuisine and Black-owned restaurants?
If you came to Detroit and stayed in the Greater Downtown area, you would have very little opportunity to dine at Black-owned restaurants and try African-American cuisine. But if you went deeper into the neighborhoods, that is where you’ll find more variety. That said, a lot about the culinary scene in Detroit is segregated, which is very much like the city itself. But that is changing more and more and I’m hopeful for what the future holds.
You are very involved in the Detroit food scene, both as a restaurant consultant and former chef/owner of two award winning restaurants, Folk and The Farmer’s Hand. What was your experience as a Black restaurateur? Do you think that restaurant ownership is enough to change the inequities in the culinary industry?
Many people own restaurants. But simply owning a restaurant isn’t enough to change the inequities of the industry. You can own a restaurant and still pay sub-minimum wages. You can own a restaurant and still tolerate sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. As a restaurant owner, it was important to me that I pushed back on what a traditional restaurant model looked like. I’ve experienced a lot of discrimination in this industry as a worker (and yes, as an owner, too!), and I didn’t want to run a business that wasn’t positioned to do better. But change isn’t linear, that I know for sure. At the same time, it doesn’t mean that it’s not possible.
In addition to being a chef, I am now the Executive Director of Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, a nationwide action and advocacy nonprofit that is dedicated to bettering the lives of restaurant workers nationwide across four focus areas: wage fairness; sexual harassment and gender equity; racial justice and immigration reform; and mental health and substance abuse. So, you could say I’ve taken my own advocacy to the next level because, just like the Detroit food scene, the restaurant industry nationwide is in need of real systems change work.
I will always cook and I will consult on projects and with people I believe in. But I’m working towards a more hospitable industry for all, and that means taking this work beyond the four walls of my food establishment.
In addition to your work in restaurants, you are very vocal about food justice and local agriculture. You were also a FoodLab Detroit 2019 Change in Food & Labor Fellow. Can you talk about FoodLab Detroit and other community initiatives you support?
Absolutely. I am enamored with what Malik Yakini is doing at Detroit Black Community Food Security Network and I cannot wait for the People’s Co-Op to open. As an avid garden, I am also a yearly supporter of Keep Growing Detroit’s Garden Resource Program. Oakland Avenue Farm has been an indelible resource to their community in the North End, and I’m excited to see more things from Ederique Goudia and her team at the Taste the Diaspora Detroit.
You competed on Season 18 of Bravo’s Top Chef Portland. What motivated you to join the show, and what did you learn from that experience?
One word: representation. Top Chef may not seem like the most likely fit from someone like me who pushes against the industry’s status quo – and quite frankly, I did a lot of soul searching before agreeing to be cast. But what solidified the decision for me was how important it is for Black and Brown [people] to see themselves positively represented in the media. I thought about how I would have felt if I saw a Black woman chef on TV when I was growing up – how empowered I would have felt, and how inspired I would have been. With very little BIPOC representation in kitchen leadership industry wide, I felt it was important to put myself out there to remind us of what’s possible. The sky is the limit.
You speak a lot about your Congolese heritage on the show. Central African cuisine is not something that we often hear a lot about. Can you talk more about this and how it influences your cooking? What are your favorite Congolese dishes?
That was purposeful. The truth is Congolese food is celebratory in my family. We eat it on very special occasions now. Although growing up it was more commonplace. But I’ve never cooked that food to any extent professionally – and I wanted to. I’ve cooked in French, Italian and Mediterranean kitchens. So, a better strategy might have been to cook what you’re used to, cook what you know best. At the same time, I didn’t care because I felt like I had the opportunity to showcase food that America has never seen before. So, I cooked things I ate often as a kid – peanut stew, fufu, [and] saka saka, which is cassava leaf stew. I probably had a different approach to the competition because I thought more about what I wanted people to experience than how I was going to win. Call it foolish or unsuccessful, but in the end I am happy my Congolese heritage was highlighted. I am the first and thus far the only Congolese contestant to ever compete on the show, and I’m confident the door has been opened for more chefs from the Diaspora to compete in the future.
What are five must-have ingredients you always have in your kitchen?
Lemons, fresh fish, coconut oil, hot peppers, peanut butter.
What is your favorite dish to make at home?
Salads from my garden with whatever is fresh and in season.
What is your dream food destination?
What legacy do you hope to leave on the culinary industry?
I want to leave this industry better than it was when I started. I want to see more policies that protect workers, more solutions for how to address systemic issues and the inequities so many of us face in restaurants. Lastly, I hope I can peel back the onion layers and get more people to feel confident standing up against the injustices they see every single day. And I hope to do so from a place of love, understanding, education, and community.
Are you working on any projects now that you would like to share?
I am the Executive Director of Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, and I am excited about so many initiatives we have in the pipeline. In addition to distributing over $7M from our Covid Relief Fund to disaster relief and direct financial support for restaurant workers in crisis due to the pandemic, we launched our Racial Justice Fund to address the specific injustices faced by Black, Indigenous, and other workers in the restaurant industry.
Beyond that, we will be hosting a celebration of restaurant workers in New York this coming September. The goal for the event is to recognize the strength and resilience we have shown as an industry over the past year, and uplift the people who fight hard every day to keep hospitality hospitable for all. Please check us out on social media @rwcfusa and online at www.restaurantworkerscf.org.
Lastly, follow me on Instagram @kiki_louya for more information about resistance dinners across the country, which I will be hosting alongside my fellow Top Chef contestants Sasha Grumman (@thefiercechef), Brittanny Anderson (@brittanny_anderson) and Roscoe Hall (@artisticmisfits). We are best known as the Eliminators, and we’ve got many more fun events up our sleeves this year.