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Chef Alisa Reynolds' soul food has launched her onto the national stage

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

I am just two blocks from my house right now. I'm at this tiny strip mall in central LA. And at the corner is this little soul food place. You might miss it because there's no name on it. The sign just has a fork and a knife and a big red heart. But this place - it's actually called My 2 Cents. You guys want to go in?

Hi.

ALISA REYNOLDS: Hi.

CHANG: It's so nice to meet you.

REYNOLDS: Pleasure is mine.

CHANG: Alisa, right?

REYNOLDS: Yes, welcome.

CHANG: Chef Alisa Reynolds opened this restaurant a decade ago. And since then, it has grown into a neighborhood institution.

And I was just here for Sunday brunch and had your shrimp and grits.

REYNOLDS: Thank you. Oh, my gosh. I did not know that. Was it good?

CHANG: It was so good. I didn't get to...

So good that her cooking has gotten so much acclaim here in LA.

REYNOLDS: We are 101 Best Restaurants this year in the LA Times.

CHANG: Congratulations.

REYNOLDS: Thank you.

CHANG: But you know, My 2 Cents has launched Reynolds onto a stage that reaches far beyond this city. Last year, she hosted the Hulu show "Searching For Soul Food," traveling from Oklahoma to Jamaica, South Africa to Peru. And then this year, Reynolds became a James Beard Award semifinalist for best chef in all of California. And as you know, James Beard is like the Oscars of food. And holy cow, this is my little neighborhood restaurant, so of course I had to stop by.

Every time I've been in here, I'm gazing through this glass case. And I am salivating 'cause what I am looking at, people, is just tray after tray of cakes, brownies, loaves.

REYNOLDS: We have a rum cake here. My favorite is the vegan sweet potato pound cake. Yum. It looks plain, but it's so moist it's ridiculous. We have the German chocolate, which is...

CHANG: Meanwhile, the menu here features dishes like shrimp and grits, fried green tomatoes, oxtail tacos. Reynolds says she is reimagining soul food. She calls it evolved nostalgia. It's soul food with a healthier twist. There are vegan options, gluten-free choices.

REYNOLDS: It's still naughty, but it's closer to nice.

CHANG: (Laughter).

REYNOLDS: You know what I mean?

CHANG: And after a quick tour of the front of house, she hands me an apron.

REYNOLDS: Maybe I could get you in the kitchen.

CHANG: Oh, please get me in the kitchen. Give me a job.

REYNOLDS: OK. This is it.

CHANG: Put me to work, Alisa.

REYNOLDS: OK, you're my sous chef for the day.

CHANG: Oh. Yes, chef.

REYNOLDS: (Laughter).

CHANG: I am actually hopeless in a kitchen, so this is going to get interesting.

REYNOLDS: You boil water good? That's about it?

CHANG: First thing I notice - I start sweating immediately.

REYNOLDS: The grill is probably about 700-and-something degrees here. It's hot.

CHANG: It is hot, but I just can't stand there and whine about it because the orders are already flooding in.

REYNOLDS: You are going to make your first shrimp and grits. Are you ready?

CHANG: I am so ready.

I throw some butter in a hot pan and then toss in some shrimp.

Yeah, how many should I grab?

REYNOLDS: We're going to do eight pieces.

CHANG: Ooh.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAN SIZZLING)

CHANG: And then, as they sear in the pan...

REYNOLDS: All right. You're going to take one scoop of our house-made Creole sauce.

CHANG: Oh, my God. This looks delicious.

I ladle in some lobster stock.

Boom.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAN SIZZLING)

CHANG: And a plume of steam fills the air and my nostrils.

Shrimp and grits you'll find in most soul food places. What would you say is your unique take on this classic?

REYNOLDS: Well, I wanted the broth and the shrimp to do the talking. A lot of times, people put bacon, and they put this, and they put onions, and they put all this stuff on there. But for me, it's all about bringing out the flavor of the shrimp and having a beautiful, beautiful grit.

CHANG: And dang, these grits are beautiful as we spoon them into a bowl.

REYNOLDS: And we have two scoops.

CHANG: So creamy.

REYNOLDS: Yes.

CHANG: I lay the shrimp on top, sprinkle on some parmesan, and that bowl of shrimp and grits is ready to go.

REYNOLDS: Wasn't that fun?

CHANG: That was.

REYNOLDS: It's easy being a chef. Look at how easy it is to be a sous chef.

CHANG: All right, now on to the next dish. No time to waste. One of the best sellers here at My 2 Cents is the oxtail tacos. They are the centerpiece of a whole selection of tacos on the menu which she calls tacos negros - or Black tacos.

REYNOLDS: A lot of Black people in Los Angeles grew up on tacos. We are in the city of tacos.

CHANG: Yeah.

REYNOLDS: And so I wanted to make soul tacos. I wanted to bridge that gap. We did fried chicken tacos. We did, obviously, the catfish tacos.

CHANG: Ground turkey.

REYNOLDS: Ground turkey and cheese, which is, like, a staple in so many Black households - is this - we do ground turkey taco with the cheese.

CHANG: So when it was taco Tuesday...

REYNOLDS: Yes, like today.

CHANG: ...In the Reynolds household, were you guys like, whoo (ph)?

REYNOLDS: Yes. And that was once a week because my mom was so consistent with her meals.

CHANG: And while we're talking, I noticed that Reynolds' eyes keep darting to a growing line of order tickets which are accumulating above her prep station.

I just want to note that you are just whipping out dishes...

REYNOLDS: Yes.

CHANG: ...Sending them out to tables while you're answering my questions...

REYNOLDS: Yeah.

CHANG: ...Not missing a beat.

REYNOLDS: Not missing a beat. And you are helping me.

CHANG: Oh, yeah. I forgot I was supposed to be helping. OK. We throw some tortillas on the grill, and then we head over to a tub full of beautiful, boneless, juicy oxtail braised for six hours with rosemary, garlic, beer and barbecue sauce.

OK, Alisa, this is where my greed might get in the way...

REYNOLDS: Yes.

CHANG: ...Because I'm going to put more meat...

REYNOLDS: Lord have mercy.

CHANG: ...Than the tortilla can possibly wrap around...

REYNOLDS: OK. So basically...

CHANG: ...'cause I want my taco to explode.

REYNOLDS: ...My sous chef is not budget-friendly here.

CHANG: here.

REYNOLDS: It's - she's...

CHANG: I want a mountain of meat.

REYNOLDS: She is literally out of budget here.

CHANG: Top these babies off with roasted tomatoes, shredded kale, a slightly sweet whiskey reduction...

REYNOLDS: Mmm. Those look really yummy.

CHANG: And now it's my turn to feast.

Oh.

REYNOLDS: Let me get you a napkin.

CHANG: No, I'm just going to lick it.

REYNOLDS: (Laughter).

CHANG: Oh, my God. This is so good. This is the first time...

It is so easy to get lost in the food here. And, a decade ago, that is all Reynolds had in mind - good eating on a small corner of Mid City LA.

REYNOLDS: Obviously, opening this restaurant, I wasn't opening it to chase a James Beard Award because I'm concerned with providing a service for my community. And, yes, I love being the best - on anybody's best list. But when I heard about the James Beard, I literally had to sit down. I was like, what?

CHANG: What?

REYNOLDS: And that means we're moving forward as a country to start to recognize all different types of food.

CHANG: Besides your obvious love of cooking, what keeps you going? What makes it worth it?

REYNOLDS: I think what makes it worth it is the same thing that made me realize that I wanted to be a chef. It's like, food is always essential for the soul. And for me to have that as my life, it's kind of like - it makes me get up in the morning.

CHANG: It's love.

REYNOLDS: It's love. And it's the closest thing to love in this crazy world. So as long as I keep feeding people, I will get up in the morning. And that will give me joy, and I will always be grateful for that.

CHANG: I have so enjoyed this whole visit, and I'm going to eat this food differently. I'm already loving it, but I'm going to eat it differently now...

REYNOLDS: Thank you so much.

CHANG: ...The next time I sit down in here. Thank you so much.

REYNOLDS: Thank you. And you're my neighbor.

CHANG: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

REYNOLDS: Oh, my gosh. Thank you. (Inaudible) crying at the end.

CHANG: How come I'm all sweaty, but you're not?

REYNOLDS: Because my sweat is within.

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: That is Alisa Reynolds, executive chef, founder of My 2 Cents, and a James Beard Award semifinalist this year for best chef in California.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kai McNamee
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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