Keith Taylor: Into the soul of a chef
"I figured out how to feed my family with God's gift of putting dead meat and wood together."
Keith Taylor's Facebook is a mix of Bible passages, '70s Spotify music selections, and very lightly filtered observations about restaurants (he owns Zachary's BBQ in Norristown) and family (his wife of 25 years, Elizabeth, and four "crumbsnatchers," ages 24 to 1) — keeping a rare balance in his high-pressure field.
His own story is equally eclectic. Taylor, 52, who is African American, grew up in Nutley, N.J., a heavily Italian and Polish American town, after his mother, who was single, sent him to live with his grandmother Doris. He never knew his father. Doris Taylor was known for her cookouts — thus, his appreciation of food. More important, he said, she was a leader. She and his uncles steered him along — to Cornell University, to the Culinary Institute of America, to the Army, where he was a Ranger attached to the 1/508 Airborne Infantry in the 82nd Airborne Division, and then to hotel kitchens, running the in-house catering at what was the Continental Airlines Arena at the Meadowlands, before he relocated to the Philadelphia suburbs to manage in-house catering for the University of Pennsylvania.
I sat down with Taylor shortly before his appearance with his older son, Zachary, 20, at 8 p.m. Sunday on Food Network's Guy's Grocery Games.
You always wear a toque. At a barbecue restaurant?
For the longest time in my career, I had to always say, "No grits. No greens. No grease." I didn't want to be pigeonholed into "the black chef who does black food." I worked hard to go to Cornell and the Culinary Institute and work in the best restaurants so I would have the same credentials as my white counterparts, so I could be taken seriously. When I think back to when I dreamed about becoming a chef, black chefs were not taken seriously — because they did not exist. But now, I'm tired of that. I want to go back to having fun. When I was doing $40 million in food at the Meadowlands, I couldn't do that.
Whole part of that image I had of watching chefs when I was younger. It's the image of a professional chef. I don't just talk the talk.
What is soul food?
Soul is not black. Soul represents struggle. Soul food in an Italian house might be pasta fagioli. If I go into a Polish house, it might be gołumpkis or pierogi. … All these foods are born of struggle. That was the only thing that filled you and nourished you — whether it was [living under] Mussolini in Italy, or the potato famine in Ireland, or the African American migration of slaves from the South. My version of soul is not a black thing. It's a culture thing. And there is no Swiss soul food. They have everything.
You talk frequently about families in crisis. How do you fix it?
It's a matter of leadership. And I say that because my son is a leader. My daughter is a leader. My two younger sons are going to be a leader because I had leaders. And the fix-it part is families. You have to have a family. I didn't have a dad. I didn't even live with my mother, but I had good leaders around me. That leadership piece is so important because that's what's going to make you be able to recognize when you've got to buck up. And then when you're ready to buck up, you know what you're going to do. You could say, "I want to be a fire-alarm installer, and I want to be the best one in the world." Well, you can talk about it, but you've got to be about it. The only way you can be about it is if you put in the work. If you don't have examples of how people get through the hard stuff, that's going to be hard. But if you come from a pack of leaders that have decided, "I'm not going to rest until I've accomplished this," well, even if you don't accomplish that, when you set that high goal, you're going to end up in pretty good company.
After the corporate life, why become an owner?
Chefs are always left with the fact that, at some point, someone is going to tell them that they are no longer valuable. "See you. I need younger, I need cheaper." It happens to all of them. I didn't see it as a dire problem when I got my little severance pay, but that lit the fire under me. I've got to do something on my own because I'm not going to have someone else tell me that I'm done.
Are there too many restaurants today?
The truth is, yes. But no. The reason why I say no is this: I figured out how to feed my family with God's gift of putting dead meat and wood together. And if you're really smart, you can make a ton of money out of it. So, it's like this one place where you can make something from nothing. I know guys who have made a fortune with hot-dog carts. What I think is there are too many critics. Food has gotten to that point where everybody's an expert.