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Fresh off Top Chef, Kiki Louya talks about a more equitable service industry

Nick Hagen
New York Times

Chef Kiki Louya’s had a hand in some of the brightest spots on Detroit’s food map. She co-founded Folk Cafe and Market and The Farmer's Hand, both in Corktown. In addition, she’s a writer, food activist, and restaurant consultant who’s been active in movements to eliminate tips in favor of living wages for servers and kitchen staff. She also just finished a stint on season 18 of the competitive reality cooking show, Top Chef. 

Chef Louya’s early food memories are transcontinental 

“Early on in life, my dad used to make a lot of food from, you know, his native country. The really interesting part of that is, when he first moved here, he couldn't find the same ingredients. So he had to kind of use his imagination. So a lot of things were kind of like his interpretation of Congolese cuisine, just using things like, you know, cream of wheat instead of, you know, fufu, and that kind of thing. So, you know, he adapted. And my mom is actually originally from the American South. So a lot of the food that she grew up with that was very comforting to her --  meatloaf and mashed potatoes, you know, grits and that kind of thing -- we would have a lot too, especially when visiting my grandmother, who was one of my first, I think, real culinary influences.”

Corktown welcomed Chef Louya with open arms

“I will never forget the first day that we opened The Farmer's Hand. We had a line out the door. It was raining outside and people were so excited to walk in and to welcome us into the neighborhood. That, I just felt like that was really the true spirit of Detroit. It's like we're really happy you're here and we're really committed to your success and we want to support you any way we can.”

Establishing a connection with the Corktown community 

“We had a mechanism at all of the spaces, really, for community feedback where we wanted to listen to what customers wanted. Whether it be grocery items or food on the plate. And so, you know, that to me, that's kind of what I want for any establishment that I'm a part of. I don't want to just kind of beat into people's heads what I want as a chef, what I think that they should be eating. But I want it to be more of this, like, conversation with the neighborhood. How can we support each other? Because food, essentially, it fills up. It fills a place and everybody's lives in a very meaningful way. But at the same time, as food establishments, we can also have that reciprocal relationship with the communities that we exist within.”

Credit Bravo TV
Chef Louya appeared in Season 18 of the competitive reality cooking show, Top Chef.

Does the stress of Top Chef measure up to a restaurant kitchen?

“Top Chef is a very different experience in that everything is out of your control-- everything. Quite literally. And so you really have to be so adaptable because, at any given moment, rules are going to change. What the actual challenge is, is going to change. The ingredients that you were expecting, the dish that you're planning in your head overnight, that will change because you don't have access to those ingredients. You might not get the protein you want. Equipment might fail. You might be cooking outdoors. It's raining. All of those things are elements that from day to day, obviously, as the competition goes along, produces even more stress. Because, as a person who's very used to being in control and really likes that control, it took a little bit of getting used to for sure. But that's also the nature of the competition, right?”

Chef Louya’s wants her food to make you feel 

“I want people to feel maybe a little sense of nostalgia. There's something maybe that they recognize, something that's comforting to them in that food. It's always really fresh. But at the same time, it is kind of my way of showing people that I love them. And I think that I do that, you know, whether I'm cooking in a restaurant establishment or whether I'm just cooking for my husband or some friends of mine, you know, I really think that food is about connecting. And it very much can be about showing someone that you care for them.”

What’s next for Chef Louya

“I'll throw a teaser out here and, while I can't give specifics, I'm definitely not done with restaurant work. You know, I think that there are concepts that are in my head that have always been in my head that I really want to take a go at one day soon.”

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