by Joy Brown
Keitha West gets about four hours of sleep on any given night, which is not uncommon for a chef. After working third shift in the corporate cafeteria at First Solar Energy, she then checks her messages and preps meals for her Toledo area business, HotBox, an increasingly busy catering and delivery service. In addition, she teaches two-hour Sunday cooking classes in her home to students ages 5-14.
In honor of Black History Month, West, a University of Findlay alumna, carved out time on Feb. 16 to host two soul food cooking demonstrations and discuss the history of African American cooking at the Buford Intercultural Student Services Center on campus. On the menu: collard greens, macaroni and cheese, grilled and baked herbed chicken with pan gravy, corn bread and banana pudding.
The moniker “soul food,” she explained, is actually “a very new and American term” that only dates back to the 1960s. During the Civil Rights era, black citizens, as they migrated to different parts of the nation, craved food that they were familiar with – comfort food. They therefore brought those recipes and cooking techniques with them as they relocated in search of better jobs and lives. “True African food is not soul food,” she noted.
Assisting her was her endearing 5-year-old son, Marcus, who also loves to cook. “He has learned a wide amount of skills from watching me,” she said.
The 30-year-old began cooking at a young age too. Her first job was making pretzels at a mall. But while growing up, she spent countless hours in the kitchen with her grandmother, who was more than adept at cooking delicious meals in massive quantities, having raised 13 children. West recalls her grandmother preparing fabulous feasts that everyone devoured.
Academically, West was trained in the culinary arts by UF’s previous hospitality management duo, John and Paula Wolper. She recalls gaining experience at the Village Cafe, a former student-operated restaurant on campus that is no longer in operation. West remembers planning a Caribbean-inspired menu and serving it at the cafe as part of her studies. She graduated in 2006 with a Bachelor of Science degree in hospitality management.
“The program taught me a lot,” the Libbey High School graduate said of her UF experience. “Being here taught me a lot.”
During her recent cooking demonstrations, she explained that she cooks food, soul food and otherwise, that she wants to eat. She makes some exceptions, particularly with ingredients; she’s a vegetarian but her business does serve meat. Healthy options remain the focus. Her collard greens, for instance, were made without protein, but flavorfully seasoned.
“I strive for minimal grease. The stereotypes you get with soul food are that it’s greasy, buttery, unhealthy, sweet,” she said. “I try not to use any bags, boxes or frozen things. I try to make vegetables because people usually don’t like them.” Fresh ingredients are tantamount. She even eschews boxed pasta, preferring to make her own using just three ingredients, her own two hands and a rolling pin.
West admitted it hasn’t been easy pursuing her culinary dreams. She progressed from management positions at TGI Fridays restaurants in Toledo, Michigan and Virginia to opening her own small café, but unexpected utility costs cut into her profit, and she had to close it after a year and a half.
Her entrepreneurial spirit and passion for cooking remain intact, however. HotBox serves a variety of dishes for everyone, from the elderly to students to wedding guests. Her children’s cooking classes, which teach basic techniques and equipment use, and incorporate easy breakfast and baking recipes, are popular.
West would like to pursue other professional goals. Said she would like to expand her culinary teaching for the younger set and operate a food truck.
For more information on HotBox, to place orders, and to order West’s CD with instructions on how to make some of her favorite recipes, visit her Facebook order app at https://www.facebook.com/HotBoxOrder. She can also be found on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/keitha.west.35; and on Instagram at youngchefstar and Thehotboxparty.com.