A hundred blocks south, far on the other side of the I-10, is a world that chef Robert Gadsby could easily not know, let alone care about.
This black Brit with a high-toned resume set in storybook locales (Thailand, France, Italy, Singapore) and blue-blooded gentleman's bearing would seem to have little reason to move outside L.A.'s increasingly exalted culinary circles. What would he necessarily know of Watts--a piece of L.A. still crisscrossed by decrepit railroad tracks and still struggling as much with outside stereotypes as it does with its own sagging self-esteem?
This far north, at Wilshire at La Brea, a boulevard at its northern edges jammed with posh upholstery stores, flamboyant antique shops, amber-lit boutiques and an equally moody set of eateries, brothers Danny and Richard Franco and their friend William Henagan cut a little uncertainly down an alley and into the humid, rattling kitchen of Gadsby's. It's a bewildering other world.
Tying crisp, bleached aprons over their baggy jeans and dress-length shirts, they hide their hair with baseball caps or hurriedly band it into ponytails, ready to sample an exotic slice of life.
In the pause between lunch and dinner, the rest of the kitchen staff is already fast at work, chopping mushrooms, green onions and tomatoes--the steamy room filled with the music of work--water spilling into a stainless-steel sink, metal tapping wood, murmured conversation waltzing from English to Spanish to English again.
Like a character out of a Roald Dahl child's fantasy, Gadsby, 39, descends from an attic loft, his black clogs hugging the rungs of the white ladder. He rushes into the kitchen, ties on his apron over black-and-white pinstriped cook pants and a red-and-black lumberjack vest.
"Did you wash your hands?" Gadsby asks with a sweeping glance over his oval frames and rubbing his palms together. Slowly, in a half slump, the trio shuffle off to the sink.
Once scrubbed, Gadsby lines them up in front of a cutting board while pulling down a chicken breast. He rains salt on top, then dispatches them to different preparation tasks. Danny, 19, mixes ground beef, green onion, tomatoes and mushrooms into a filling. Richard, 16, pounds on the chicken breast with a wooden rolling pin the size of a baseball bat. William, 17, cracks an egg over Danny's mixture: "The egg," Gadsby explains, "binds it together."
For these young men, this uptown oasis is a grand departure from a mode of thinking that prunes away opportunity, hems them in. From tagging, drugs, gangs, scarce job options--these distractions, temptations and limitations can tug them off the path leading to a broader future. But once a week, for three hours in a kitchen, Gadsby hopes to pave a different way out, making what appears unreachable and unfamiliar, less so.
These students are selected from two youth programs of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee. This partnership serves as a bridge for at-risk kids with unarticulated artistic talents to find ways to not only channel their restlessness, but to tap their creative source.
Some weeks a procession of Locke High School and Jordan High School students learns to prepare exotic fare--stuffed breast of chicken roll with California wild lettuces, or white chocolate ginger ice cream. Other weeks it's a foray up the street to the Cooks Library to learn the foundations of menu planning, or field trips to the grocery to learn the secrets of selecting top-quality produce--be it a piece of meat or a leaf of an herb.
"When I was growing up I was staying with my grandmother and she wanted me to learn how to cook. 'You don't need a woman unless you need a kid,' she'd tell me," says Henagan, boasting about his potent chili recipe and barbecue ribs. "I can put a woman to shame in the kitchen."
"Some wives don't like to cook, so that means we'll be prepared for anything," says Richard, chuckling; he already sees that some deft moves with pots, pans and condiments well might score points with the ladies.
But Danny waves them silent, then reflects for a moment. "I come for the learning part. You don't often get a good opportunity, so when you do you can't let it slip away."
Nor can you let them wander too far out of an embrace. "Some of them have been picked up or have served time for tagging," Gadsby says. "Others have trouble at home but no place to vent it. In the kitchen I try to show them connection between art and nutrition. About balance and restraint. How all those parts create a whole."
This is only one small part of a larger business--and even broader community plan, Gadsby explains over a lunch of his own butternut squash soup and freshly baked bread.
Their partnership, called Watts and Gadsby's, was conceived and tended by Gadsby and Teryl Watkins, president and development director of WLCAC, a community-based organization that since 1965 has worked to rejuvenate Watts / Willowbrook and surrounding South L.A.