“Sometimes you fall down, but there’s always an opportunity to pick yourself back up,” says Malachi Jenkins, his voice catching. “Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do something.”
Jenkins is the chef behind Trap Kitchen, a wildly popular catering company run out of a small Compton apartment. The entire operation is marketed through Instagram, where it posts daily menu items, the corresponding price, and what number to call. It’s consistent soul food; a given meal comes with a combination of protein, carbs and a bit of vegetables, usually graced with a thick gravy or cheese. You might find apple cinnamon cornbread with baked chicken and steak one day, or seafood gumbo with king crab legs on another. Shrimp ladled into half a pineapple is a perpetual favorite. Garlic mashed potatoes is a popular side with roasted chicken. The food is available for delivery or pickup.
With more than 230,000 followers on Instagram, Trap Kitchen is a true Los Angeles success story. It's part of a wave of underground food services that market their food entirely on the photo-based social media platform.
Nearly two years since Trap Kitchen started, the momentum is still going strong. It frequently sells out of food and is commissioned for events. Jenkins and his friends are also former gang members, raised in Los Angeles County, previously affiliated with the Crips and Pirus.
“I don’t want to live that life no more. I want to get money the way I’m supposed to get it,” Jenkins says. “Most importantly, I have a kid.”
He has always been a talented chef. Raised by a single mother who was constantly working, Jenkins cooked for himself starting at a young age. It seemed like a natural career path.
“Out here in the streets as a man growing up without a father, you think about what you are going to do,” Jenkins says. “One day I saw a Le Cordon Bleu commercial and I took to it.” He ended up moving to Las Vegas and enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu there, working in nightlife on the side and as a personal chef to some of the criminal element there. He dropped out of school, feeling that he'd learned enough of the basics to be satisfied with his education. Also, tuition was just too expensive.
Eventually Jenkins moved back to Los Angeles with the dream of starting his own business.
That business ended up being Trap Kitchen, which was born in 2013 with just him and a couple of friends. They opened it with the goal of feeding their local community in South Los Angeles, a corridor of Los Angeles that's infamous for its lack of access to fresh food.
“The ultimate goal was to create community and serve the community,” he says.
The men started cooking food out of their apartment, posting the goods on Instagram and spreading the word through friends. The media eventually got a whiff of the venture and business immediately exploded. Jenkins has since catered for the likes of Snoop Dog and Tyrese — even Martha Stewart.
“We always still stick to word-of-mouth, and that’s how we got out here,” he says.
On the phone, Jenkins seems almost weary of the media interviews, but his voice perks up when asked if he has any advice for youths who are feeling discouraged with life.
“It’s possible to do anything that you want to do,” he says. “It’s not a race thing. It’s not a black, white or Asian issue. It’s about not following what the next person is doing, and believing in yourself. There's always going to be a lot of 'no.' If you really want to make something out of yourselves, you're going to have to stick to it. Stick to what you're good at.”
Next up for Trap Kitchen is a proper brick-and-mortar space.
“Any day now,” Jenkins says.