When Kool-Aid Is the Start of a Culinary Education

I wanted to celebrate the food of my childhood — regardless of what that food may be

Omar Tate
Published in
9 min readFeb 26, 2020


Photo: Meet Resident

I am a fan of the television show “Chef’s Table,” even if every episode invariably follows the same arc: There is a staid opening scene that leans toward establishing the legitimacy of the chef. Next, it dives into that chef’s background. The storyline tends to highlight the guidance or mentorship of an elder or parental figure, and it includes experiences centered around intimate moments of joy in food — in fields, gardens, or in the kitchen with family. The camera shots are beautiful. Affirming interviews with contemporaries and peers are carefully placed. And the narrative tends to position that chef as an innovator.

These introductions are magnificent in every way except one: They have never made me feel like my story could ever be told there. I see myself in the very same space as a Grant Achatz, or Massimo Bottura, or Magnus Nilsson: These men are innovators who have used their personal experiences to create food that not only tells their story but also has moved food and dining culture.

I was born a Black boy in Philadelphia in 1986 in the middle of a crack epidemic in the ghetto where I grew up. My mother raised four boys on her own while maintaining work and school; my father was in prison. There were no farms, no chickens or cows to tend to. There was actually the complete opposite. I was raised in a row home in a neighborhood called Happy Hollow in Northwest Philly. Our home was positioned next to an empty lot overgrown with weeds and across the street from another empty lot of concrete. A lot that used to be a factory, leveled and still is.

I am the oldest of four boys. The four of us enjoyed our time in the weeded-over lot next-door to us with our neighbors in the summertime. We created adventures in our “jungle” of weeds. Finding all sorts of things to play with: broken sticks for baseball, old records to throw as frisbees, rocks, worms, and garden snakes. And when the sun dipped, and our parents would conveniently forget how late it was, we would catch the lightnin’ bugs in our hands. We’d laugh as we chased after each other with them. We imagined a world of our own joy and found it among the ivy and wishing…