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“Why you should cook outside of the box.”With Chef Vicky Colas & Akino West

I feel very passionately about the idea that ethnically diverse chefs are only capable or interested in cuisines that represent their respective background or culture. It makes my skin crawl to know that a lot of people assume that I create or may be most comfortable with creating Soul or Caribbean food. My culinary background […]

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I feel very passionately about the idea that ethnically diverse chefs are only capable or interested in cuisines that represent their respective background or culture. It makes my skin crawl to know that a lot of people assume that I create or may be most comfortable with creating Soul or Caribbean food. My culinary background represents so much more than that. For other ethnically diverse chefs/cooks, I want to change our level of comfort when it comes to cooking outside of the boxes that society had deemed as a successful arena for us. White chefs get asked their style of cuisine or preference and are not judged by their response. I believe that chefs of color do not usually get that same opportunity or accolade.


As part of our series about the lessons from Inspirational Black Chefs & Restaurateurs I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Chef Akino West.

Akino has spent the earlier years of his career working his way up the culinary ladder. West began his culinary training in his hometown, Riviera Beach, Florida by competing in state-wide culinary competitions. He won first place, in every competition entered on the state level. Akino decided to make a progressive career move by attending Johnson & Wales University. He graduated with his bachelor’s degree in Hospitality Management while working his way up to the Executive Sous Chef position at the James Beard award-winning, Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink. West then moved to take on the opportunity to work amongst the best of the industry, at the two- Michelin-star rated, 2010–2012, and 2014’s number 1 restaurant in the world, NOMA, in Copenhagen, Denmark. West made the modest move back to South Florida he then went on to work for his friend/mentor Chef Niven Patel, at the awarded winning Ghee Indian Kitchen.

West is now COO of Copper Door Properties Corporation, since 2017 and managing partner at The Copper Door B&B since 2018.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?

Iwas initially inspired to become a chef after taking a Home Economics class in high school and loved the culinary component. When I enjoy something, I take it very seriously and give it all my energy. That Home Economics class with Chef Tammy Neumann led to state and national level culinary competitions. In my senior year, after my team and I won first place in the state competition, I vividly recall Chef Neumann encouraging me to continue my culinary education after high school and to consider it as a career. I took her advice, whole heartily, and applied to culinary school.

Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?

There really is not a specific cuisine or type of food that I focus on. I enjoy playing with different ingredients while staying true to cultural flavors of that cuisine. Early in my career I worked as a line cook for Michael Schwartz and was exposed to so many global cuisines and fundamental techniques. That experience was a game changer to how I perceive food and I realized what I could create. Schwartz was able to instill in me the notion that all types of food are meant for all types of people to enjoy and cook equally. There is no segregation when it comes to food, either it is good, or it is not. I simply focus on creating good food.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

I was the opening sous-chef for this one venue. I walked in at around 6:30AM and could immediately smell gas within the entire restaurant. I was entirely caught off guard. I called our Executive Chef, who then called our maintenance technician. Maintenance confirmed that gas was never shut off from the night before and had been running all night. After opening all the windows and waiting about an hour for the fumes to dissipate, he explained that there was only one way to tell if the gas had escaped. I stepped outside as he tested the pilot, suddenly . . . BOOM! All of the restaurant’s hurricane proof glass doors broke out and so did the 250-pound maintenance technician, moustache singed off and his feet moving at a speed that I never before believed would have been possible.

That day I learned my lesson for life, and I share it with anyone I work alongside. Triple check that all the gas is shut off at the end of the night! If you are tired, have someone else triple check you. I could not believe that in a slight circumstance, if my senses were not sharp that morning, it could have been the end of the restaurant and possibly me.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?

I am a super competitive person. One of the things I loved about being a line cook was the adrenaline. It was like a game to me; this dance of multi-tasking and precision was ultra-exciting. In a traditional style kitchen, the environment is typically cut-throat, aggressive and intense, and although those were the parts of cooking that I loved it was those same elements that got in the way of my humanity. It was extremely challenging, especially as a young cook to balance my hustle with humility and respect and empathy for the people with whom I was working. I’ve always had the mindset that being the best has no mercy and for a long time neither did I.

As I have matured and as I’ve learned from the nature of chefs, who I had respected, I have been able to lead in a way that was quite different than how I grew up as a cook.

Chef Niven Patel was a great role model for me to witness and learn how someone with power could had control of their kitchen, food, and team at a high level, without bringing the people who worked for him down but actually building them up. Between developing my personal relationships and, honestly, listening skills I can say that I have been able to overcome this obstacle that many line cooks and chefs experience in their career. I am so thankful that I am now able to create a positive balance of high execution and awareness of those around me.

In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?

I have come to realize that creating great dishes starts with trusting my intuition. If it is something I am inspired by and feel good about, if it is something, I could see myself eating and wanting more of — that’s what I make. I have to taste it and believe in it. That is step one.

Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?

Balance. I love acidity, and when someone can create that perfect balance of savory/umami, salt and acid, for me it is perfect.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?

At the moment my time is invested in a current pop-up my fiancé and I created called, Rosie’s. The idea behind the pop-up was pivotal due to the effects of COVID-19, although it is an idea that we had conceptualized long before. Rosie’s is a feel-good café concept, where the food evokes great memories, brings one back to a place of loved ones, solid conversation, and food so good that it keeps you there.

What advice would you give to other chefs or restaurateurs to thrive and avoid burnout?

Do you have any advice for “up and coming” young chefs who are in need of guidance to become successful in the culinary world?

I strongly encourage taking time to care for your physical and mental health. To breathe! I have recently learned how to breathe and it has been one of the best things that I could have incorporated into my routine. I recommend checking in with yourself and ensuring that what you are doing is still making you happy and if not to be open to that and make the needed changes.

When it comes to the next wave of chefs, my advice would be — while in the learning stages, have an open mind when it comes to being in a new kitchen or tasting a new ingredient, become almost child-like and absorb it all. I also find it to be extremely important that chefs dine. For someone who did not grow up eating out a lot, dining now from hole-in the-wall to Michelin star has brought me so much inspiration and exposure. I create from both a front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house perspective.

COVID-19 has been a trying time for all of us. How are you growing your business during COVID-19? What advice do you have for any chefs who are trying to stay relevant during this time?

For one, Thank God for social media. Simultaneously, I have been able to be vulnerable and explain the state of our original business, while introducing a new concept and creating broader exposure for both brands, through social media. Growing our business right means being dedicated and open to support, from grant programming to gifting something extra to our regulars.

Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.

1. How difficult it is to acquire funding. Funding is one of those weird but most important factors for an aspiring owner. Banks are not open to start-ups, kitchen spaces and built-out kitchen spaces are night and day, it can be difficult to navigate and I wish I had a better understanding of how to achieve what I needed.

2. Finding and keeping reliable team members. You have to take care of your team and they will take care of you. It seems basic, but much easier said than done and doing it on a tight budget means being very creative at times.

3. Developing time to dedicate to being creative. There have been many moments where I haven’t felt inspired on a culinary level like I constantly did when I was a cook. Becoming a chef meant a completely different shift in responsibilities and it was exhausting to keep up. Now I try to designate time to simply have fun with food, it is liberating to not have to worry about ticket times, or payroll, or the hustle. I still love to just cook and it keeps me grounded.

4. Being social media savvy. Who would have thought that being a great chef in today’s industry equally means being a great photographer and a savvy marketer? Now, I give extensive props to marketing firms or social media professionals because this aspect of the restaurant business is evolving constantly, and especially in the age of COVID, it is crucial to keep future and past guests engaged.

5. Bieng multi-lingual. Boy, do I wish I paid much more attention in Spanish class. My partner is somewhat fluent in Spanish and this a skill that I wish I had. While having a business in a culturally diverse city I can see the massive advantages to being multilingual.

What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?

Our shrimp & grits is an awesome go-to. Not everyone is equally familiar with grits, but this dish will make anyone a believer.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I feel very passionately about the idea that ethnically diverse chefs are only capable or interested in cuisines that represent their respective background or culture. It makes my skin crawl to know that a lot of people assume that I create or may be most comfortable with creating Soul or Caribbean food. My culinary background represents so much more than that. For other ethnically diverse chefs/cooks, I want to change our level of comfort when it comes to cooking outside of the boxes that society had deemed as a successful arena for us. White chefs get asked their style of cuisine or preference and are not judged by their response. I believe that chefs of color do not usually get that same opportunity or accolade.

How can our readers further follow you online?

@rosiesmia, @chef_west

Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!

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