When I first talk to Malachi “Spankihanas” Jenkins, he’s cooking up pineapples and lobster at Snoop Dogg’s compound in Inglewood, California. He and his partner, Roberto “News” Smith, are two of the unlikeliest hot (and haute) chefs in American cuisine right now. Over the past few months, Jenkins and Smith have cooked for everyone from Kendrick Lamar to Kobe Bryant, seen their business triple in revenue in 2016 alone and become local celebrities in their south Los Angeles neighborhood.
Jenkins and Smith’s upstart, Trap Kitchen LA, is a plate-by-plate catering service started in 2013 in a cramped apartment kitchen in Compton. Alongside the likes of Bronx-based culinary upstarts Ghetto Gastro, Trap Kitchen is flipping the script on not just soul food, but the whole restaurant industry. They cook for locals and celebrities alike, charging $10 a plate and selling upward of 100 meals every day, all with a staff of just two and headquarters in home kitchens.
In south Los Angeles, gourmet, healthy and organic food is hard to come by, and even harder to afford. The area is classified as a “food desert” by the USDA, meaning grocery options are lacking and fast-food chains dot most corners. South LA maintains the highest obesity rate in Los Angeles county, according to the Department of Public Health. Trap Kitchen’s addressing these issues head-on, with a menu laden with king crab, chops of all ilks, pineapple bowls and jambalaya. The food is exciting, approachable and unprocessed. Most of all, it’s affordable. “The last thing they want to do is exclude the ’hood,” says Javier Cabral, West Coast staff writer at Vice’s Munchies and the journalist who kicked off the Trap Kitchen hype earlier this year.
A few years ago, Jenkins and Smith were on a very different path. After moving to south LA from the west side as a kid, Jenkins learned to cook by making dinner for his younger sister while their single mom worked late. Although officially in Crips territory, he skirted gang affiliation because of his mother, who earned Malachi the name “Spanky” — she would physically drag him home if he stayed out too late. As a youth, Jenkins made acquaintances with a kid named “Bad News” Smith, a distant relative from a friendlier branch of the opposing Piru Blood faction. As young adults, the guys bounced through uninspiring jobs as cashiers, auto detailers and ice cream men, and hustled everything from jewelry to hair weaves to drugs, racking up arrests for petty crimes and narcotics possession in the process.