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How I Went from the Inner City to the Culinary World's Inner Circle

As a kid in South Central, I had no idea that I'd be studying at Le Cordon Bleu and cooking for some of entertainment's biggest names like T-Pain, Drake, and Kevin Hart.

I grew up in the inner city of LA—South Central. My mom cooked really healthy when I was growing up. She didn't use heavy salt, just fresh herbs—thyme, basil, oregano, and so on—pepper, and a few other things. It's funny because I've never really thought about it, but now that I look at how I cook, I use fresh herbs in almost everything I do. I got inspired at an early age by my older brother Andrew. He was really into cooking; I was more into art, drawing and painting. But at a young age—maybe five or six years old—I remember sitting back and trying to peer up over the stove to see what was going on.

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Fast forward to high school, when I had two options for electives. I knew for sure I wanted visual arts to be one of them, and there was an option for a culinary arts class. I signed up for that and actually did really well.

My school, Dorsey High School, worked with a program called C-CAP—the Careers through Culinary Arts Program—which works with a lot of high schools nationwide.

In the ninth grade, they had a program where I was able to shadow a chef for a day. The chef that was chosen for me and a few other students was Mark Peel, the owner and chef of Campanile in Los Angeles. We went to the Santa Monica farmers market and walked around with him while he would buy all the fresh ingredients for the restaurant. Coming from the inner city, trying a fingerling potato raw was a new experience.

Afterwards, I asked if I could go back in the kitchen and hang out for a little bit. The chef agreed, so he went back to the office around 3 PM and came down around 9:45 or 10 PM and I was still in the kitchen working. I think I was in the back learning how to break down a whole chicken, starting from cutting the head off.

He was like, "Edwin, you're still here?!" My mom came and picked me up, and I asked him, "Hey, this summer, if you have any internships or if there is a possibility to be able to work…" and he actually said yes. So I came back that summer and worked prep and on the brunch line at Campanile.

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That experience really helped develop both who I am today and who I will become, in technique and through those long hours of standing. You're talking to a 14- or 15-year-old kid who has never done hard labor and giving them a 50-pound bag of potatoes and saying, "These need to be peeled."

C-CAP also had a competition where we had to demonstrate our knife cuts, and make, I don't know, a French-style omelet—something like that. I won it in 11th grade, and that gave me the ability to go study at La Cordon Bleu in London for three weeks. That kind of jet-started my culinary career, and it was 2001.

It was surreal. I don't think I really valued the experience until later on, when I realized, Wow, you were in London, this inner-city kid that really hasn't experienced anything other than what he already knows. To be able to travel to another country and have food really opening up those doors was an amazing experience, and being able to work in a restaurant before going to culinary school gave me a step ahead because my work ethic was already there.

After school, I used to put on these events that we called Monday Night Mixers where I would call and text a bunch of friends and say, "This Monday, if you'd like to come through, there's a five-dollar donation at the door," and create different culinary layouts. Everything worked through word of mouth. Now that social media is big, it works a little bit differently, but back then, I was getting on MySpace. It became its own little event. After a while, I went to talk to the owner of the Comedy Union, a comedy club in LA, about producing a comedy show. I was approached by a friend of mine, Brandon T. Jackson, and he wanted to work together because I had this draw—so many people used to come out to my little tasting event.

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As a result, Brandon brought a lot of young Hollywood through before you ever heard of them, like Evan Ross, Elijah Kelley, and a bunch of young actors. I also met a lot of comedians who would become future clients: Mike Epps, Kevin Hart, and Rodney Perry. One of the most popular menu items there was my egg rolls. To this day, the owner calls me and tells me that people still ask if they have the Chef E-Dubble Egg Roll.

After the whole Comedy Union saga, I did a tasting at a restaurant that was called Life on Wilshire, and the owner was so blown away that he offered me the executive chef position there. When I got the position, I wanted to raise food sales, of course, and the first possible way I knew how was to put a comedy show together. The other event that we created was called Infusion, a mix between live music and great food. I've always been into music growing up, singing and dancing. All types of music. My dad was really into jazz—he always played old John Coltrane, and my mom really loved oldies, and we all loved hip-hop. I'm sure every kid growing up in the late 80s and early 90s had to fall in love with hip-hop somewhat.

I had a lot of friends that were musicians, so we put on this event, Infusion, where they would come play and I would do a special chef's menu. About three years ago, we did also an event called Living at Cafe Entourage, which was a production that my business manager Marshawn and I put on. It became a Tuesday night destination spot—JoJo would come through all the time, Faith Evans came through and performed. That's how I started developing relationships with some of the musicians and celebrities.

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I think food and music have always been tied together because they're very personal and connective. Food is at a point now where it's cool to be a chef, and to eat things you might not have tried before.

You can feel that in the music you hear nowadays—food references are in everything, with Rick Ross talking about chicken wings and Drake talking about curry. Working with the rapper The Game, he's really into fitness, and diet is probably 80 percent of what fitness is about. And dealing with artists like Meek Mill, who stays away from pork, you have to create menus around people's dietary concerns. Or working with T-Pain, who might be like, "I don't eat that." Alright, that's fine, but try this, taste it one time. The doors have been open for entertainers and celebrities to fall in love with food, no matter where you come from and what you do.

My second-in-command, Karim, and I went to culinary school together, and we've capitalized on the art of using what you have to make a great finished product. I've learned through catering that sometimes things get left off the list, but we can substitute a different ingredient in and still come up with a great outcome. I love shooting from the hip.

I've worked with a lot of chefs who say, "Oh, well I need X, Y, and Z to get this done." No, you really don't. You have flour over there, and you can turn that into a roux.

To young chefs coming up, don't be afraid to use your creativity. Don't fall into the habit of thinking that if you don't have something that a recipe calls for, then it's just a wreck.