WITH Kia Damon
Kia Damon is the new head chef of Lalito, the much-loved, coastal-vacation-vibes-infused nook on Bayard Street serving bright, highly likable food like avocado and papaya salads, coconut grits with chimichurri, and seaweed tuna.
According to Kia, who took the place of her mentor and former chef, Gerarado Gonzalez, Lalito is a restaurant for everyone; a place “to truly be different.” We spoke with Kia about her journey in food and the culture she’s trying to create in her new kitchen, and were endlessly inspired by her vulnerability, strength, and open, honest approach.
Photographed by Caroline Tompkins
I’d love to hear more about your journey, and how you got to where you are now. You’re from Florida.
Well, I guess going all the way back — I’m completely self taught. I wanted to pursue [culinary school] but my parents were just like, ‘Um, we don’t have money for that, and neither do you.’ And they both work in financial aid, so they knew. I was so desperate to go to culinary school I almost went into the military to pay for it. And then I got really sick, and it just didn’t work out that way. So I booked it to North Florida, and I was like, ‘You know, I’ll just pursue something on my own.’ And I had already been in hospitality … I thought, I’ll go to North Florida, I’ll go to this small town where I can probably do something and make some noise, because it’s so small. It was really difficult at first: lots of rejection, lots of discrimination. And taking jobs where they were only trying to like, test me to see if I was really good. Having to endure a whole lot just to prove that I had skills and I was willing to learn. It was hard. And that’s when I started doing work for myself on the side: the supper club I was doing, and Kia Cooks ... After a while I was doing enough that people knew me.
But what really took it here was that I collect Bon Appetit, and I opened a magazine and I saw G [Gerardo Gonzalez] and looked him up on Instagram. And he had shirts for the restaurant, and I was like, ‘Yo, I want a shirt.’ And he was like, ‘Really? ‘Cause I want one of your shirts.’ And I was like, ‘That’s crazy, but okay, sure.’ I sent the shirt — he never sent the shirt. [laughs] Then I saw him on Grub Street in that shirt. And I was on the toilet at my like, wack-ass job, and I was like, ‘Wow.’ [My friend] saw they were looking for a sous chef, and she was like, ‘You should apply here.’ Long story short, some months passed, and then I was here as the sous chef.
And that was this summer?
Yeah, I hit the ground running. I got here August 15th, started working August 17th, and have not stopped working since then.
That’s amazing. It usually takes people so long to break in here.
I accidentally hit the turbo button in the car. But it’s like — I’ve been doing this my whole life. I’m 25 now, I’ve been working in this industry since I was 16, and cooking since I was like, 12.
You’ve been vocal about experiencing the toxicity and abuse that we all know exists within the industry. And I know this kitchen has a reputation as not being like that at all. I’d love if you could speak to that.
I think it seems that way … but it has still succumbed to those same things, especially before I got here … I’m trying to build real relationships with the people I bring on. I’ve had two people walk out. When I got here, there were a few line cooks that were already here, and — it’s wild to think about now — but one of them like, racially and sexually attacked me. And he’s long gone now. But it happened here in the restaurant. And I don’t feel like my being a sous chef put me in a place where those things couldn’t touch me, but it’s still really jarring to think that I just walked in as your boss, and you just felt like you could do that to me.
I’m so sorry.
It took a while to get over that … and it takes a lot of work to flip that, because that means I have to let people go who don’t want to change. I had to learn that the hard way. Some people will walk out, or you just have to let them go.
What are the values you’re trying to uphold in your kitchen?
Just respect. It all boils down to it. Just respect. I just feel like that translates to everything. If you respect the job, you’ll respect the space, you’ll respect your coworkers. And if you respect the job, the space, and your coworkers, I feel like you’re respecting me.
Having respect and taking a little more time and tenderness to see each other — and to allow yourself to be seen as well. I encourage people to be a little vulnerable sometimes. I’m also very open about the fact that I have depression, and that I have had depression and anxiety … Sometimes I need this place to be gentle with me, and that’s not always the case. I want to offer people that same vulnerability, because I care about you past this place. Whoever you are past this place, is what you bring here. You know? It’s all connected. So just respect, and a little gentleness.
You obviously have a strong relationship to food, being a chef. How would you describe your personal relationship to food?
It definitely started off as a struggle. Growing up a woman in the South, and my body looking a certain way, and then being made to feel self-conscious about that — I just hated food. I didn’t want anything to do with it, didn’t want to eat it. And I think as I began to dig deeper into who I am as a person, and my heritage and all of that, it swung me right back around: to watching my mother cook, my grandmother and my aunt, and my fathers — both of them [laughs] — and cooking for my brother. So I began to grow a different kind of appreciation: not for what food does to my body and all that, but just how I feel … I began to feel good again about how it feels to be myself and to eat with the people around me. And then, growing even older and starting my supper club — which was really just a journey into what black women have done for food, and the diaspora, and Southern food — I feel like it brought me a greater appreciation for it. And a greater love for knowledge and an understanding of food.
When you’re home — probably not very much right now — what do you like to cook and eat, when you have the time?
Right now I’m really fucking with breakfast. I’m always doing some soft-scrambled eggs and avocado. Also doing lots of slow-cooked oatmeal. But that’s literally all I have time to really eat when I’m home. It feels good: just a nice soft-scrambled egg, salt and pepper, olive oil, thyme, avocado, a piece of bread — or some slow-cooked oatmeal. I’ll eat that one pot of oatmeal throughout the rest of the day.
We’re trying to talk about failure more, because we feel like it’s important.
That’s real, yeah.
It’s obviously an essential component to challenging yourself and experiencing growth. I’d love if you would tell us about the last time you felt like you failed, if you’re willing.
Honestly, this past week, or week and half. It felt like consistent failure. My lunch cook walked out on the job, then we launched a new menu that day. I was trying to learn all of his job while getting this new menu together and working ungodly hours. I just felt like I couldn’t catch up, and it felt like a failure as a chef — like, you’re supposed to be able to work 16-hour days, you’re supposed to be able to do this guy’s job, and also your job, and put in orders and sit in meetings, and do stuff for your [public relations] team, and take care of your personal relationships.
I just woke up every day and felt like I was failing … I was like, ‘What am I doing? I’m not cut out for this.’ That feeling is still sort of there, but it gets smaller. I’m like, ‘Alright, I made it through this week, I made it through last week, we’re going to try again.’
Literally, I try to take everything by the day. Because if I start thinking about my week [or anything more], I lose it.
Yesterday I was working with someone on getting desserts that I want on the menu — things that feel good and match my energy. And she did it. I saw them, and it felt like the greatest success. I was like, ‘Nothing else that happens today can make me feel any [other] way about this. Because look at these two desserts — I drew them out and told you exactly what I was looking for, and here they are, right in my face. Nothing can break my spirit.’ And I just carried that with me, and the little failure monster got a little smaller.
Who are the women you look up to, and what kind of women would you like to be?
First and foremost I look up to my mother, always. Love her so much. Jessica B. Harris, who’s an iconic, wonderful person … Solange, for sure. Beyonce. The late Edna Lewis. She’s done so much for Southern food — just food, period — but for Southern food, she really let people know that it’s not anything that you think it is. She was born in Freetown, and I actually have a Freetown tattoo, and I look at it all the time. People are always like, ‘Oh, the Dev Hynes album?’ [laughs] and I’m like, ‘No, girl, no.’ I’m pretty sure there are more sleeping around; there are so many women that I [admire], but those are definitely the women I look up to, aspire to, all the time right now.
I want to be a woman who is kind to herself. I struggle with that. I like to be kind to myself. I want to be strong-willed and dependable. I want to be a woman with boundaries — strong, unwavering boundaries. And integrity. And I just want be an all-around boss. An all-around baddie on another level, you know what I mean? I want to be an unapologetic powerhouse.