"It all started when I got hired to be a personal chef for local pimps while living in Las Vegas," Malachi "Spankihanas" Jenkins tells me in his living room. "I started cooking for them after I dropped out of Le Cordon Bleu; they love rich pastas like shrimp and chicken Alfredo, and dishes like that."
Jenkins and his business partner Roberto Arturo Smith have allowed me to step inside their DIY food commissary—the small kitchen inside Smith's apartment, located just south of downtown Los Angeles—behind their underground restaurant, TrapKitchenLA. In what can only be described as Kendrick Lamar's "m.A.A.d. city" come to life, I greet and pound the fists of four of their Crip friends chilling in their living room sofa, who nevertheless mad-dog me as I grill Jenkins and Smith with questions.
A stranger in their territory, I continue to follow my nose to the scent of cooked seafood into the kitchen, where I meet Smith. He is hollowing out half of a ripe pineapple for their Friday seafood special. He fills it with a heaping ladleful of white rice and tops it with a sliced lobster tail, a couple of king crab legs, sauteed shrimp, and a generous drizzle of teriyaki sauce. "We call this 'The Deadliest Catch,'" he tells me as he proudly holds it up for a photo. "We can't make enough of them fast enough for all of our customers; they go crazy for this dish."
Just then, Smith hands two plastic bags to his friends for a delivery order. He wastes no time to prepare another hollowed-out pineapple, but this one is filled with nothing but some juicy-looking chicken pieces. The pineapple goes to a customer who is patiently idling in her SUV along the red sidewalk in front of their apartment complex. All of TrapKitchenLA's combos come with a cold can of soda and cost anywhere from $10 to $20, and it is common for them to sell out every day.
"We go through around 30 to 40 pounds of meat a day, and we have customers who come back day after day," Smith tells me. During this late lunch rush of customers, Smith shares how TrapKitchenLA started, against all the odds. "We went from hanging in the the clubs and messing with them girls to hanging in the kitchen and messing with food. I'm a Piru, and he is a Crip, but that doesn't matter."
Though the tone in the kitchen had turned tense when I asked about their gang affiliations, the mood lightens when I ask about how they are set to cater Kendrick Lamar's wedding party. "My neighborhood has its own [music] label called BBE, so we've catered food for a lot of artists in the past. Snoop Dogg, The Game, Tyrese, Reverend Run, D'Angelo, Lil' Derk, and a bunch more," Jenkins tells me.
They searched them and their car 'cause they thought we were trapping drugs, but all we did was trap food.
When asked about the inspiration behind some of their dishes, Jenkins responds, "I'm just a nigga who loves food and trying new food." He does admit to getting inspired by watching Anthony Bourdain, Andrew Zimmern, and Guy Fieri on TV, and his favorite spots in Los Angeles include Versailles, Bossa Nova, and R & R's Soul Food. "I like simple, homey, comfort food. I ain't a Benihana's type of dude where they play with your food in front of you."
His passion for food started out of necessity when he was 16 years old. "My mom was always at work, so me and my sister had to fend for ourselves. We had groceries, so I learned how to whip up ABC-123-type of simple meals out of just watching my grandma and mom cook."
His dishes are as diverse as his 36,000 Instagram followers. TrapKitchenLA makes only one dish a day and it can range from fajitas to broiled salmon, braised short ribs, chili, gumbo, or steak. He scours the local markets for his menus, including Mexican carnicerias, Vietnamese seafood markets, and Food 4 Less.
"I feed the streets. You don't have to spend $50 or make a reservation for some asparagus and steak or lobster tail at a fancy restaurant. People out here are hungry, you know what I'm saying? They want to eat good food, too, so I feed them the same at a flat rate." It's no secret that Compton suffers from a lack of wholesome food options. Jenkins adds that in the unlikely situation that he has any leftover food, he always gives it away.
Both Jenkins and Smith jokingly recount the time when an undercover police officer pulled over one of their first-time customers, who had just picked up food from them. "They searched them and their car 'cause they thought we were trapping drugs, but all we did was trap food, so they squashed the case. I was like, 'Oh yeah, like that?!'"
After nearly a year of business, Jenkins and Smith are making enough money to support their families. (Jenkins has a six-month-old and Smith has five kids.) In the near future, TrapKitchenLA hopes to open up as brick-and-mortar restaurant for their customers to come in and leisurely lounge while eating their soulful dishes.
As I make my way out of their apartment—with a Styrofoam clamshell filled with buttery lobster, white rice, and a frosty Sprite—Jenkins's and Smith's homies are scooting around on hoverboards and loudly discussing Stephen Curry's jumpshot in the living room. But this time, instead of mad-dogging me, they all grin as I pound their fists goodbye—especially Jenkins.
"Nobody understands this trap life. We're just after that honey like everybody else."
This story was originally published in January 2016.