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    By Cassia Herron

     

    Update: On June 9, chef Edward Lee announced that he would close his downtown restaurant, Milkwood, after seven years of operation. The former Milkwood kitchen will become the McAtee Community Kitchen, named for barbecue chef David McAtee, whom the National Guard shot and killed in west Louisville on June 1. Opening June 15, the McAtee Community Kitchen will provide meals and groceries to neighborhoods such as Shelby Park, as well as neighborhoods in the West End, like Russell. Chef Nikkia Rhodes, the director of Iroqouis High School's culinary program and the subject of this story from February, will run the kitchen with her students. "It is her time," Lee wrote on Facebook. "This is no longer my kitchen. It belongs to her. We are not here simply to feed those in need. We are here to inspire the next generation of Black chefs in Louisville through pride in our professionalism, passion and integrity. I could not think of a better person to lead this charge than Nikkia."

     

    It’s Halloween and Nikkia Rhodes is dressed as a Coca-Cola can. The 22-year-old is in her second year teaching culinary arts at Iroquois High School, and on this day pumpkins fill the lab. She has incorporated pumpkins into a lesson on knives because many of her students have never carved a jack-o’-lantern, much less visited the Jack O’Lantern Spectacular at nearby Iroquois Park.

    Rhodes grew up south of Broadway in Smoketown with her mother, two siblings and her mother’s boyfriend. She had a relationship with her father, though she says he was in and out of prison most of her childhood because of drug addiction. When she was 17 he died of colon cancer, a disease that’s deadly for many Black men. She says she later discovered that her mother and her mother’s boyfriend were daily drug users.

    Despite drugs and addiction being part of the fabric of her family, Rhodes has fond memories of her old neighborhood and playing in adjacent Shelby Park. In an interview with WFPL in 2018, Rhodes said a “crackhead” taught her how to ride a bike. Rhodes says the maintenance man down the street bought the bike and the other man volunteered to teach her. “Our society thinks of folks like these men as the lowest of the low,” she says. “I remember feeling so special that they both thought enough of me to help.”


    22-year-old Nikkia Rhodes is in her second year teaching culinary arts at Iroquois High School.

    Though Rhodes grew up poor — moving from downtown to Shively and several other South End locations — she spent much of her childhood with her mother, who worked in the kitchen at a daycare and at Volunteers of America. Rhodes remembers being sent to the office when she was too unruly in the kitchen. That’s where she fell in love with cookbooks. Her favorite, she says, “was this orange Betty Crocker one about baking. I was so excited when we finally got to bake a cake from one of the recipes: vanilla with real pineapple icing. We made the icing!”

    Rhodes remembers “keeping track of the inventory” and counting the canned goods. She unloaded food deliveries from Sysco and sometimes served food. She always spent Thanksgiving and Christmas at VOA. “We’d open presents on the night of Christmas Eve and be up bright and early to make breakfast for the people,” she says. Those experiences in VOA’s kitchen helped her get to college. 

    At Western High School in Shively, she enrolled in a program in which high school students attend classes at Jefferson Community and Technical College for college credit. She thought: You can go to school to cook?! She graduated from Western with 35 credits toward her associate degree and one year later completed JCTC’s culinary-arts program.

    Rhodes says her teachers were her rocks. When her father died, a teacher greeted her at the school bus to check in with her. Someone else suggested grief counseling. A couple of teachers took her shopping for prom. Through work at YouthBuild, an education, leadership and workforce-training program in Smoketown, Rhodes met chef Edward Lee of 610 Magnolia (and other restaurants) and eventually participated in his Lee Initiative, a leadership-development initiative focused on equality and diversity in the restaurant industry in the wake of the #MeToo movement. With a cohort of other young people, she trained at 610 and later with a few women from across the state. She worked alongside James Beard Award-winning chef Anne Quatrano, whom Atlanta Magazine once called the “queen of Atlanta’s fine dining.” Of Rhodes, Lee says, “I saw her grow from someone who wanted to learn and to just be in a kitchen to a leader in the industry.”

     

    In August 2018, following the Lee Initiative and a stint cooking at local children’s cooking program Turnip the Beet, Rhodes found herself at a Jefferson County Public Schools job fair. Two weeks later, she was enrolled in Kentucky’s alternative teacher-certification program to become the culinary-arts instructor at Iroquois, bypassing a traditional teaching degree. (Other JCPS high schools offer culinary arts.)

    The first year was tough. “I started last year with hardly anything,” Rhodes says. “I had a few tables, a chair, two hot plates and a flash drive with information.” She was able to get some office supplies, and she borrowed books from Moore and Western high schools. She relied on an array of guest speakers (including representatives of the Louisville Fire Department and Louisville Metro Department of Public Health & Wellness and staff from Dave & Busters) to supplement what she could offer in the meager space at Iroquois, now classified as an Academy of Louisville career-prep school. The students learned about sanitation and safety in the kitchen, team-building, communication. “They enjoyed hearing from professionals in the field, but we wanted a kitchen,” Rhodes says.

    Last summer, she got the go-ahead for a more functional space. “There would be a team of mostly men in suits with clipboards. I would walk them around this space. They gave me most of what I wanted,” she says. Former principal Clay Holbrook (replaced by Rob Fulk in the wake of a teacher-student fight, amid other violent altercations at the school) says the program was created in response to a survey that indicated middle school students’ interest in food. “She had a vision for this program and has seen it through,” Holbrook says. (When asked about the teacher-student fight that took place last fall, resulting in the student being arrested and the teacher’s resignation, Rhodes says, “He’s one of my students. He’s a good kid. Always ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘no ma’am.’ I have never had those kinds of problems with him.”)

    Rhodes has five classes and more than 100 students — 60 of whom continued from last year’s class, and 15 of whom are seniors on a fast track to enter JCTC’s culinary program. She has 60 students on the waiting list. Rhodes has a food budget of $2,000 for the school year and can only purchase food from Kroger (the district gave her a gift card). Remember the pumpkins? Those alone cost $300.

    Rhodes is creative about fundraising, including having students sell clothing that promotes the program. She is building relationships with businesses and has started a food-prep service marketed to Iroquois staff and faculty. She is teaching the students about entrepreneurship and business and counsels her students on everything from how to ride TARC to how to register to vote and rent an apartment.

    About some of the recent changes under Principal Fulk, which include more lighting, more security and more cameras, Rhodes says, “These additions are good for teachers, but we need more teachers who can better connect with our students.” Rhodes, who has a white mother, says Iroquois needs more Black teachers. “If you don’t have Black kids in hoodies walking in your neighborhood, how do you know how to approach them at school?” she says. “Our students see and experience the racialized environment we all live in. When they come to school and see mostly non-Black adults, it creates an us-vs.-them environment…White students see themselves in most of the teachers; Black students see themselves through their coaches. We have to change that.”

    Rhodes is trying to change the climate by connecting with students through food. “I learned early on that it’s hard to be mean to someone who is serving you food or when you are eating with someone,” she says. She believes the recent changes in school administration — including hiring a Black assistant principal — have improved school culture. 

    Rhodes says her students are applying for jobs in the food industry, and some are even cooking more at home. 

    “If you give me the food, money for textbooks, maybe an assistant,” Rhodes says, “I could create something very special for the culinary industry — for the next generation.”

     

    This originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline “Cooking in the Classroom.” To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photo by Adam Mescan, shutterphotoandfilm.com

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