“You did that?” is the line Emmett dropped when he took the first bite of Kiesha’s Chicken Dip on the “The Chi” in Season 5, Episode 5. It was the way he mean-mugged that shit and reached in for more with an, I’ma get another, that made me go, That shit better be real good, Emmett! Well, it was. The dip that I thought was basic-bitch food that the props department picked up from the corner store was a specially-crafted chicken dip created and cooked by @foodbywest.
A native of LA, Private Chef Ali West (@foodbywest) spends her time traveling and living all over the world to study the art of cooking and experiment with ingredients and flavors that elevate some of our culture’s most beloved recipes. We talked about everything from the untimely passing of her mother in 2021 to the defining moment in her career when she cooked for the Marine Corps while they quarantined at a hotel in Atlanta. And that led to an opportunity to cook for a tv and film writer, director, and producer. Our talk was so juicy that we kept all of it. Enjoy!
Part I: A personal chef in the making
The question we all hate: Tell me about yourself (without the chef).
As a kid, I wasn’t as chill as I am now. I was a constant ball of energy. But as long as the energy was focused on something, I was pretty simple. I grew up like a tomboy.
I have an older sister and we’re both Aries, so it was a very interesting childhood. Like they say about all Aries, Charge our hearts and not our heads, because those ram horns are going to come right back. And I’m learning how to decipher whether or not it’s necessary to keep the fire down sometimes.
My focus all of 2020 was patience and understanding it. Spiritually, physically, in actuality, right in front of you. Understanding patience and what it does for a person. And now, it’s all about being present. I feel like I’m more present now than I was a year ago. And I feel like it’s because things are so well-placed right now. I’m so grateful and sort of overwhelmed with the number of blessings and opportunities that surround me. And I’m not in a place where I’m thinking about, Next year I want to do this, I want this, or I want that. I’m more focused on what I’m doing right now and how to keep my patience and peace.
When did cooking begin to form and later take shape as your career?
I grew up in the kitchen. My mom and my dad both cooked. My dad cooked himself through dentistry before he owned his own practice. And my mom was a hygienist, but she catered everybody’s parties and dinners. Back in the day, they had champagne parties for prom. I don’t know why this memory always sticks with me, but I remember–from my sister’s champagne party–she had the dining room table laid. It was all different types of appetizers. She was always so quick with it and she made it look effortless. The food was just like–I mean, everybody’s mom could cook… She could throw down!
One night, I was visiting from college, and some friends were in LA. They popped up. It was probably 8:30[pm]. We were in the dining room talking and my mom comes out with a plate of stuffed mushrooms and these grilled Roma tomatoes; it was so random. My friends still talk about it to this day. It’s wild that she was able to go in there and make it happen. And it’s in me. It’s definitely in my blood.
I started off at Clark Atlanta University as a psychology major. And I still love psychology. It will always be a passion. But the school aspect of things was not for me–not in college anyway. It felt like I could be doing more. I wanted to be doing more. And it’s so funny, but an Art Institute commercial [came on] one summer night, and I was like, Fuck it. I’m going to apply.
I did all the things and my mom was [not feeling it].
My older sister went to Mount St. Mary’s for journalism. She left Mount St. Mary’s and went to Dominguez Hills for acting and theater. And I went from psychology to culinary. [Mom] having two daughters who were like, Okay, I like this position. I like this nature. So we both dropped out to [pursue] the arts; sorry, mom. It used to drive her crazy, but it didn’t stop me. I had to get myself in there. I was already working in a restaurant and I started climbing up that ladder. It all happened so fast. When I think about it, it’s been like thirteen years now, but it feels like it was just yesterday. I could still list the restaurants I used to work at, from LA to Atlanta.
Part II: Tables Turn
I started catering. It’s like the restaurants are the hood and catering is the suburbs. It’s different in these people’s houses; they trust you with absolutely everything. And when you’re good at your job, you’re running shit. I like the idea of being able to be the boss. I hate saying it like that, right? Because I’m not a boss, you know what I mean? But I know how to manage the kitchen. I liked having that title, but getting in the trenches with my team was always the highlight of the day. With that, shit just started happening.
I always go through the ups and downs of being a chef, right? This industry is not–I’m sure like any industry–for the weak. I would have days, months, especially when the pandemic hit, where I was just like, I don’t want to cook anymore. I’m not with it. But the homies will come over and I’m like my mom in the kitchen: come out with this platter of food. Cooking was a love language for me. It still is. I feel like you can feed people’s souls through food. And it’s so much more than substance or nutrients; you’re truly feeding the soul.
Being able to sit there and take that bite, it’s like, I needed that. You feel it differently. And I love when people ask me, What’s the one ingredient? My answer is, The first ingredient is love. And I leave it at that because I feel like that’s what you have to have.
What do you want people to say when they taste your food?
If you look at a piece of art [and] you’re just torn apart inside… if that art does that to you, that’s how I feel about my plates. I want people to be able to sit back and be like, Damn, that was good!
But it’s deeper than the way it tastes. I’ve noticed it throughout my career; when we would do a family meal or one of my chefs would say they were hungry. I wanted to make something for myself–it’s like, Let me just flip this up real quick. Everything was fast-paced in the restaurant. Ten minutes to eat, five minutes to get it ready. It taught me to become who I am as a personal chef, which is easy.
What’s your philosophy when serving clients and their guests?
Clients can be a handful. That comes with the job. You’re in the hospitality business. You learn to cater to people’s needs. I worked with Seasons 52 for a very long time. At that restaurant, they call themselves a yes-taurant: we never said no. And that was one of the reasons I grew. I always found a way to make the shit happen. And I’ve learned to relate a lot of it to my regular life. Moving quickly when shit goes left, or having to pivot to a new idea, or understanding that sometimes it doesn’t have to work.
What was your break?
Back to the ups and downs of being a chef, I was so ready to give it up. I was about to sell insurance or something. I don’t even know how I stumbled upon it. But I wanted something different. Peace or ease. I didn’t want to have to push so hard. And the week before my training, one of my old catering chefs hit me up in the midst of the pandemic. The Sheraton Hotel Downtown Atlanta was quarantining the Marine Corps before they were sent to basic training. And while they were there, we had to feed them breakfast, lunch, and dinner. One time, we had nineteen hundred people. That shit was a beast, but it was so much fun.
The [other cooks] were guys that I had worked with in catering. It was such a good time to have that kind of family when everybody was so separated.
The first couple of days, I’m seeing how things are going. And I can’t work in chaos. So when I’m seeing things being done, I’m making suggestions here and there. They said, Here is your clipboard. You go ahead and make all the changes and rules you need to. I’m like, I didn’t sign up for this position but I’m going to take it. I ended up running the whole program and it was a fucking experience and a lot of fun. We did that for about eight months to a year. And when the world started to open up, I was offered a sous chef position.
It’s great food. Great restaurant. It was starting from the ground up which I love because you get to make your mark. A lot of the restaurants I worked at, I started them from the ground up. You get a different type of seniority once you’re there for a while and that’s always fun. I did that and I loved it. The team was great. The position was great. Everything about it was what I asked for. What I’d been working for. What I wanted. And I wanted to quit so bad. I wanted to be done with it so bad. And I was like, I got to figure something out. Because also in this industry, when you’re working, you’re working. You don’t have a life outside of your off days. And trying to have another hustle was difficult.
I ended up quitting that job; I faked COVID. When I was supposed to go back, I put in my notice. And if that was a Monday, on Thursday, my friend Brie, Lena’s assistant, called me and said, Lena needs a chef. I wish you were in LA. And at the time, my girlfriend was a flight attendant. So I was like, I can be in LA. Just tell me what’s up. It’s nothing. So we worked out the kinks and did over-the-phone interviews. In the meantime, things started to change for the better. In the weight of getting to LA, I was helping my catering guys out. I was doing parties for them, and I started doing a comedy show. They would set themselves up once every two weeks or once a month and I’d set up my food in the back and sell small plates.
From there, my homeboy had me do his friend’s bachelor party. Little things like that were where I got my name and content out to get going. Then I came out to LA to do my interview; it was a three-day process. By Friday, I had it and was back in Atlanta for seven days to pack up as much as I could. And that was it. I was out of there. Back home. I always said that the only thing that was going to get me back to LA was a check. I had to be able to get home and feel like I can still be an adult at home.
Along with that came extra traveling, opportunities, and experiences that I’m starting to sink my teeth into. Just learning the ins and outs of being a personal chef, what it means, and rolling with the punches. It’s been a fucking journey.
Part III: The Future
What and who inspires and drives your creativity in the kitchen?
My mom. She passed away last Christmas in 2021. She had Alzheimer’s. It was one of those things where you were, unfortunately, waiting for it. But it was still very devastating for me and my sister. Especially for me because things had started to take off with such momentum. I feel like I’ve gained an angel in the kitchen.
It’s been tough because I’m a weirdo when it comes to emotions and dealing with shit, so I’m understanding grief this time around. I lost my dad in high school and it was different because I was in high school; I had my mom and my sister. Whereas now, it was like, Fuck! It was a different type of alone. And dealing with that grief was the hardest part for me. I had spent so much time in the dark before she passed that I felt like I was coming out of that and I didn’t want to go back because it was ugly.
My surroundings are different. The people who I keep around me are different. The people who are still around, we’re different. You begin to see growth differently. I think growth and my mom are my inspiration. Just willing and wanting to be better and striving towards that every single day. My girlfriend is so cute. She’ll be like, Pet’s right there. That’s my mom’s name, Pet. She’s right there in the kitchen with you. And in the moments where I’m stressed and about to be over it, I hear her say that, and for whatever reason, I’m like, Yeah, I got it. And then I take myself back to being a kid helping her peel shrimp and make biscuits. She’s definitely my number one inspiration in all of this.
On a more intimate note when dealing with a client or their guest, my inspiration is them. It’s the person. I like to know what you don’t like and why you don’t like it. I had a friend who didn’t like salmon. She ordered it and I don’t remember how she described it, but I remember her hating it. It was too fishy or something like that. So I ended up making her salmon for dinner that night and she cleaned her plate. Completely clean. She had no idea how I was able to do that or how she was able to eat the salmon.
You just have to understand a person to understand what they like. So no, I don’t know exactly what your taste buds are asking for, but from a few questions, what you like, what you don’t like. If I throw in this kind of preference, how will you react to that? I can build from that.
How do you plan a plate?
Whenever I’m talking to the person, the first thing I always see is the finished plate. And then I work backward. If you’re getting a surf and turf, I’m immediately looking at the filet with the lobster tail on top. Is the lobster still in the shell or do I have the filet sliced? Mashed potatoes or baked potatoes? Any potatoes? Is there sauce? All of those things, down to the garnish. I think that is artistry. Of course, colors matter; you eat with your eyes first. But as long as I can pass that test, we’re going to have a good night.
One of my clients does not like garlic and onions at all. There are some people who like onions. It’s like, Yeah, you can cook it with them but I won’t eat them. I’ve never heard someone say they don’t like garlic. I understand people moderating garlic because it is very strong.
But I remember when they told me this. I was like, What the fuck? It was the biggest challenge I think I’ve ever received in my culinary career because that’s how we start everything. The first thing we would do in the kitchen is chop up a bunch of onions and garlic, especially if you’re on a sauté station. Those are the first two ingredients that go into the pan. I remember being so thrown, and it was such a big deal. But I had to make it work, and I’ve been making it work for a year and a half now. I dig deep.
What are your favorite ingredients and dishes to make?
I’ve always had a thing for fresh herbs. I love herbs, period. It doesn’t matter what kind. I like to use herbs because they add such an aromatic taste and flavor to things. You can taste it but can’t tell what’s happening; it feels like an aftertaste. So I just started leaning on those things. Carrots and celery. I use leeks from time to time when you can’t cut the caramelization part that I’m going for. I’ll dice them really small. Some mushrooms. It depends on what I’m making. But for the most part, my bases have always been ginger, lemongrass, peppers, and whatever herb I want to get into for the night.
So for a tasting, they wanted tacos. And I’m from LA; I can eat tacos every day. I always say that it’s a right of passage for us. Once you learn how to make tacos, that’s your dish. That’s what you’re cooking. So growing up, I used to have taco parties all the time. All of the homies would come over and I would make tacos for everybody.
And as I got older, I started making my own salsa and my own guac. So of course, I wanted to make my guac and salsa for the tasting. And I’m like, What the fuck? I like to grill my onions. I like to grill my garlic. And I didn’t. I still roasted my tomatoes. I roasted my peppers. But I cut it with the fresh version of the tomatoes and the peppers as cilantro and then spiced it up. For the guacamole, I used red radish instead of onions because it has a kick. It gives you a little bit of color. And the texture, more than anything, made it work.
That was one of her favorite things–the one who really, really hates onions and garlic. She was just like, Your imagination. Like, who would have thought? I’m like, Girl, I don’t know. Inspiration is truly the client or the guest or whomever I’m cooking for and whatever they’re in the mood for. If I can make it work, I will, whether it’s an old-school favorite or something new.
What is your vision for the Black table?
Honestly, realizing that one, we have the opportunity as Black people, as Black women. Recently, I’ve noticed that there are a lot of women making things more available to us in terms of traveling and what luxury can look like. Growing up, we weren’t rich, but we weren’t poor either. It was definitely giving, No, I’m not buying that today. But I’ve learned that you have to work for things. Our generation has been under [the idea that] you got to save, you got to save, you got to save. If you saw the struggle in your parents of what money can do to a person, it gets so intense. So I think our generation has a grip on turning things around and making things available for ourselves.
Just like you want a personal chef, you can have a personal chef. You should be able to say that you want those kinds of things. It shouldn’t just be left to the elitists or white people. People are ordering from catering companies; we can do that too. The more I work with high-end clients who are people of color, who are women, it gives a sense of confidence. It’s like, Yeah, I can do this too. Self-care and pampering yourself are important for day-to-day. You too can go on women’s retreats and get a package deal to go away for the weekend, whatever it looks like. And with my food, from the ingredients to what I’m serving people, I’ve always been so closed off to what is so close to us.
We think it’s so far away, but we’re right there. And we have every opportunity. We just have to start speaking that way and walking towards it. My friend wants me to cook for her birthday. Don’t hesitate to ask. Open your mouth. Start being seen. Start being in positions where you’re not just a Black girl doing it, but you’re doing it just like everybody else.
It’s amazing to be the first Black, but it’s also 2023. Why are we the first? Just do it. Just be the shit. Open up the platform for everybody and let them know that you too can do all of these things. You can go to Whole Foods and get twelve oysters and I’ll show you how to grill them and have an amazing fucking backyard boogie. Something simple. A lot of things aren’t as far out of reach as we think they are.
That’s what I would like for people to see. I want them to be able to see opportunity and luxury and that all types of blessings are literally just that. And as long as you’re working and opening up yourself for that, there’s no reason why you can’t have it too.