Chefs Malachi “Spank” Jenkins and Roberto “News” Smith are two former gang members who turned their dreams into reality. Combined with their culinary skills, hustle and social media, the California-based duo created the food phenomenon known as Trap Kitchen L.A.
Jenkins and Smith chatted with Blavity about changing narratives, their new mac n’ cheese cookbook, expansion and so much more.
“We really came from the trap. The only thing we did to turn a negative to a positive was, switch out the product. The product happened to be food,” Jenkins told Blavity. “Everybody loves food…food is a universal language.”
Five years after the release of their first book, Trap Kitchen Bangin’ Recipes From Compton, the pair are back with their second book, Trap Kitchen: Mac N’ All Over the World. Their newest cookbook features a foreword from Los Angeles native Snoop Dogg and 50 mac n’ cheese recipes influenced by the United States and other international destinations, including their signature recipe.
Trap Kitchen L.A. was formed “out the house” in 2013. Smith’s grandmother’s house to be exact. Jenkins and Smith challenged the traditional understanding of the word “trap” and made it an acronym: Take Risks and Prosper. They recalled selling plates out the back door to family and friends in a manner that frequently fed their community on a weekly and sometimes daily basis.
“You would have thought we [was] in there selling drugs, the way the house was always jumping,” Smith said about the name’s inspiration. “Someone was always by the door trying to pick up a plate. You got people running out the house, you know? So, the look of it was a trap, but we were in the kitchen. So, it was Trap Kitchen. We just went with it.”
Jenkins, 35, is a member of the Crip gang, and Smith, 37, is a member of its rival group, the Bloods. The two dads used their street influence and social media to spread the word about their dishes, including their notorious “Trap Mac N’ Cheese.”
Jenkins’ culinary training began at home in the kitchen, helping his mother. He later received professional training at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Las Vegas, Nevada. Meanwhile, Smith gained his knowledge from jumping right into the kitchen. The two bonded over their fondness for cooking and entertaining and built their West Coast empire of freshly cooked fried chicken, seafood and soul food dishes. Almost a decade later, the entrepreneurial duo still sells out the food and meals they once delivered to customers.
“It was a lot for us just to be cooking out of a household, you know, like we had we had to keep changing houses or apartment buildings or finding somebody to let us use their kitchen to conduct our business because it would bring a lot of traffic and our family members,” Spank said. “They really weren’t used to that type of traffic coming to their house. So, it was fun. We really trapped, though…we would take over anybody’s kitchen, like anybody’s kitchen for real, like we were selling food and we jump from house to house, and we often sometimes will be in two different locations.”
After supplying Compton and surrounding neighborhoods, Trap Kitchen L.A. set up shop in Portland, Oregon, in 2017. The demand for their beloved food truck began gaining the attention of notable artists and athletes like Tyga, Nipsey Hussle, The Game, Amine, and CJ McCollum of the Portland Trail Blazers.
But the first celebrity Jenkins ever cooked for was R&B singer Tyrese who requested chicken alfredo, spinach, corn, garlic bread, salmon and chicken. He had a fan moment when he walked in to find Rev. Run of the legendary RUN-DMC preparing to eat the food he cooked.
“I guess at the time Rev Run was helping him write his book, but he didn’t tell me who was the guest,” Jenkins said. “He wanted food for 12 people. So, when Rev Run walked through the door, I was like, ‘Yo, that’s crazy.’”
As first-time business owners, Jenkins and Smith have overcome many obstacles, including access to funding and resources to cook with. Their careers have since reached a new level of success with television appearances on BET, Vice, the Chew, and VH1’s Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party.
“Never stop hustling. You got to keep going,” Smith said of his advice to others.
“You just got to be able to handle whatever situation that you go through, and it’s not for the weak-hearted, bro. Don’t get in it if you’re not already fully into it…just trying to make a couple of dollars. Like if you really into this, it’s going to take you places,” Jenkins added.
Jenkins and Smith are also working on a street cocktail book, a Jamaican cuisine cookbook and other exciting projects to help Trap Kitchen L.A. become an international name. They currently have a restaurant in Oakland and food trucks, and pop-ups in Miami, Houston, Atlanta and other major cities.