Reality competition TV fans were introduced to Kiki Bokungu Louya on this season’s Top Chef: Portland. But before that, Louya was already a star in Detroit and in the nation’s restaurant industry. She founded Folk and the Farmer’s Hand, two award-winning Corktown restaurants with a mission of supporting the fair treatment of food and farm workers. For her efforts she was named to the New York Times list of 16 Black Chefs Changing Food in America in 2019. The Detroit native recently talked to Eater about her filming in Portland, her restaurant experiences in her hometown, and what’s next. Edited excerpts follow:
Eater: Why did you decide to go on Top Chef?
Kiki Bokungu Louya: I was approached by a casting agent with magical elves. And initially I was not entirely sure. So I gave it some thought, talked to a mentor, and ultimately decided that it was a good idea. So then, of course, you go through the application process.
What made this a good idea now?
Obviously, 2020 was a weird year, and the stay-at-home order had just been initiated in Michigan, so a lot of things were going on. I’d turned down opportunities to be on television competitions in the past. They didn’t really feel like they were a good fit. But Top Chef is a whole different ball game. It has a lot of recognition and respect in the industry and also outside the industry.
Beyond that, I think it’s important that there’s representation in the media. That was really one of the driving factors for me. I thought about what it was like when I was a little girl, or when I was a young chef trying to make it in the industry and not seeing people who represented me in those spaces, especially in positions of power or leadership. So it didn’t really matter, necessarily, how far I would get. It was more about maybe being an inspiration for someone else who might not think they could get there.
So what did you learn from your experience?
Oh, gosh, so much. I knew that it was really important to be open to others, because you’re in a room with 14 other incredibly talented people from all over the country. So why not be open to not knowing everything, and just learning by osmosis? Beyond that, I learned a lot about myself and about resiliency.
I’ve always been a very cerebral person, which has been to my benefit, and also not to my benefit sometimes. A lot of times when you’re cooking, you just shoot from the hip. But when you’re cooking on national television, sometimes that goes out the window and you’re in your head. Because it’s a competition, it’s very stressful and you have no control over any elements — from the ingredients you have, to where you’re cooking, to whether or not things work. Because of that, I learned to get out of my head. When I was able to not think so much was when I found myself doing really well. When I started to overthink things, I started to fumble and make stupid mistakes.
There are things you can take from working in restaurants, but it really is a completely different environment. It’s more of a personal journey than anything else; you just become really strong. Eventually you can find confidence in yourself and your own voice through your food and the experience. It was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had.
What was the most challenging part of it?
We shot last fall in Portland, Oregon. Portland was obviously a hotbed for racial protests, the country was at a precipice, and we were staying right around the corner from those protests. I didn’t know that would affect me as much as it did. And we filmed during COVID. That was difficult, too.
Our kitchen was twice the size of a normal Top Chef kitchen, simply because you had to create distance. If you watch the show, have you noticed that the judges aren’t walking up to our tables to taste food, which typically happens in other seasons? For the most part, we were in masks, and we got COVID tests several times a week. All of those factors were the reality of filming in 2020. I don’t think there’s anyone from this year who didn’t experience some stress based on how we had to interact with one another or lack thereof.
You were quite emotional during the Pan-African challenge, in which you visited African restaurants and had to cook an African meal.
I didn’t expect to be as emotional as I was. I am first-generation Congolese American; my dad is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In terms of foods from the diaspora, it sometimes can be a lot easier to find Ghanaian food or Nigerian food. I can go down Eight Mile [in Detroit] and get Jamaican food, which is a little more accessible. But traditionally, when we think about African food, it’s not always readily available in major cities.
As a chef growing up in the industry, I’ve never ever in my life worked for a person of color. I’m sure there are opportunities. [Particularly in fine dining,] you don’t typically see people who are of color and in positions of leadership; you especially don’t see a lot of those foods represented. So it was an incredibly personal challenge because it was bringing up foods that I grew up with.
But it was also something that I felt ashamed of growing up, because there weren’t many outside of my family who understood. People would talk about, “Why are you eating with your hands? That’s gross! You can’t do that.” or “It looks like slop.” As a kid I internalized that, and sometimes it’s like a pain that rears its head in moments where we’re sitting around the table. It was so beautiful to me, because the chefs I was around [on Top Chef] appeared to be open to and enjoying the experience.
The fact that Bravo decided to highlight that at this moment in our country was really important to me. And I was also emotional because I want them to continue to explore this. There are so many other cultures that have not seen their food be appreciated this way. And so the personal in me, the activist in me, lit up during this episode.
You were eliminated for serving the judges raw chicken. What happened?
Oh, the chicken. I don’t want to make excuses, right? I absolutely deserved to be the one eliminated in that episode. I knew that the minute that the judges told me, “Your chicken was raw.” Of course, afterward all you’re thinking about is what happened. It all comes down to timing, not about the time we had for the challenge.
I thought about how many pieces of chicken I needed to put on each plate, how much time I would need for plating, and then worked backward from there. That completely sounds fine with no tiredness, no weird tabletop fryer that loses temperature every few minutes. In hindsight, I would have done it restaurant-style or banquet-style. I should have fried the chicken almost to temp, and then flashed it right before plating. I think that the people who are most successful on the show are the people who are able to adapt and figure things out, and I was not able to do that.
In the last few years you’ve gone from owning restaurants, to co-founding a woman-led collaborative, to stepping away from your partnerships. What’s next?
I was chef and co-owner of the Farmer’s Hand, also Folk, and eventually Nest Egg, a shared services network. And you know, from there, we also then opened up Mink, which is sustainable seafood, in what was previously the Farmer’s Hand’s spot, all in Corktown.
As to why I left, there are a lot of reasons. The real long and short of it is that partnerships have an expiration date. It doesn’t necessarily matter if it’s a 20-year partnership or a two-year partnership. Sometimes people grow in different ways, and their visions start to misalign. And that’s essentially what happened for me, and it was something that I knew was happening for a long time, but I didn’t really want to pull the trigger on it until I was absolutely positive that this was the right decision. The direction that both the hospitality group as well as the new restaurant Mink were taking and the relationship in the community were not something that aligned with me personally, and not where I wanted to see my professional growth ultimately land. It was just a better idea for me to go my own way. Top Chef came at an interesting time when I didn’t know what I was going to do next. So it gave me that space to really explore where I want to be in the food industry again.
I very much enjoyed the Farmer’s Hand, not only the foods we served, but mostly in terms of the advocacy work. And that’s something I’m building upon. I’m really excited about that. l can’t really talk in detail about restaurant ownership and my work in the kitchen. One thing I can say is I am doing dinners with a lot of other chef-contestants on Top Chef, and traveling the country a bit doing small dinners. There will be some really fun things and I’m really excited about it, because they all bring together people you recognize from TV, but also just different cuisines blending together in a way that I don’t think Detroit has seen before. And also, as far as restaurants go, I have some tricks up my sleeve. So definitely stay tuned for that.
When you’re not busy, what Detroit restaurants do you eat at?
I love the Jamaican Pot. I’m on the west side of the city, close to Dearborn, and there are so many good restaurants out here: Al Ameer, Al Shallal (24402 W. Warren Street), Flowers of Vietnam. Selden Standard — that’s a go-to if we’re going to get a little bit fancy, have some nice shared plates and a really nice cocktail. I go to Selden, because I know I’m not going to be disappointed. I never have been. Now that I’m fully vaccinated, I’m making the rounds again. Ochre is incredible. I love what they do over there.
• Top Chef: Portland [Bravo official]
• The Founder of Corktown Brunch Spot Folk Steps Away From the Restaurant This Month [ED]
• How the Farmer’s Hand Fosters Community in a Tiny Corktown Market [ED]
• The Restaurants Joining Forces for a Better Hospitality Company [E]