Chef Nikkia Rhodes Is on a Mission to Honor Slain Barbecue Owner David McAtee
On the night of May 31st, as protestors filled the streets of Louisville, Kentucky, seeking justice for the murder of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and other victims of police brutality, chef Nikkia Rhodes had a conversation with Lindsey Ofcacek, co-founder (with chef Edward Lee) of The LEE Initiative, about how to help the community.
“Our city had already been protesting police brutality and we were focused on Breonna Taylor,” Rhodes remembers. “I didn’t even realize how serious this work would become just 24 hours later.” That night, a Kroger’s in the west end of Louisville was looted and closed, leaving many low-income families who receive food stamps on the first of the month without access to groceries. The next morning, the community would have to grapple with another tragedy, shaking their culinary community. “That was the night that David McAtee passed,” Rhodes says.
David McAtee, a local barbecue chef known for feeding members of his community, including essential workers, police officers and those that were food insecure, was shot and killed by the National Guard during protests in Louisville the night of May 31st. As food historian Adrian Miller wrote, McAtee represented the best of the barbecue world—honoring the tradition of its cooking techniques and its power to bring people together.
Nikkia Rhodes, 23, who was born and raised in the Smoketown/Shelby Park area of downtown Louisville, didn’t know McAtee during his lifetime. But as pictures of him circulated in the news and on social media the morning after his death, she saw similarities between his life and her own. “I saw this picture of him in the Volunteers of America Family Shelter Kitchen [in Louisville] and it really shook something in me because I grew up in that kitchen,” Rhodes says. “My mom and grandmother actually managed that VoA kitchen for 13 years and they’ll tell you that my butt was changed on stainless steel tables, so to see him in that same kitchen that kind of sparked this side of service in me.” She knew she wanted to continue the work that McAtee did for Louisville. “I just felt like, I have to carry on what this man was doing.”
Rhodes, who teaches culinary arts skills to 120 students at Iroquois High School during the school year, has been tapped by The LEE Initiative to convert chef Edward Lee’s MilkWood restaurant in Louisville into the McAtee Community Kitchen in partnership with Children Shouldn’t Hunger, an organization aimed at building community and ending youth hunger. The McAtee community kitchen will serve 250 hot meals, three days a week to residents in the West End, Shelby Park, and Smoketown neighborhoods in addition to offering non-perishable groceries and essentials like diapers and toilet paper.
In a lot of ways, the role of overseeing MilkWood’s transition is a full circle moment for Rhodes. “MilkWood is the first professional kitchen I got to work in when I was 18 years old,” she says. In 2015, Rhodes was part of the first class of chef mentees for The LEE Initiative’s Women Chefs of Kentucky program, learning the ins and outs of running a restaurant. “Chef Rhodes has been a strong leader both in and out of the kitchen,” chef Edward Lee said in a statement. “She is committed to making her community better and I can’t think of anyone more suited to run this program with passion and drive.”
The McAtee Community Kitchen will also hire students from the culinary program that Rhodes teaches, giving them the opportunity to work with her, learning valuable culinary skills. “Four of them are working for me right now and they’re getting that hands-on training to cook in the same kitchen that I did, they get to meet the same people I did and build a network as they build their careers,” she says. “It’s overwhelming in the best way to think about how we’re really going to carry on this legacy that chef McAtee left. I just want to make sure I do it justice.”
For Rhodes, the opportunity has been a long time in the making. “My senior year of high school, I wrote this list of things I want to accomplish and one of them was ‘I want to get my driver’s license’...and [another] one of those goals was to make a difference in my community by 2030, so that’s what I’m pushing for in whatever way I can do it.”
Being a woman of color, Rhodes sees her role as being an example of the ways people from the community can have an impact. “That’s my best lesson,” she says. “Teaching my students to use their talents to serve others is the best thing I can teach.”