Tough And Universal: Cooking Instructor Nikkia Rhodes Remembers Smoketown Childhood
Nikkia Rhodes is 21 years old, and describes herself as “very lucky.”
She grew up in Louisville’s Smoketown neighborhood — a traditionally African-American area east of downtown and south of Broadway.
“Whenever I was a kid growing up, I remember going to Shelby Park a lot. And I could walk there with my best friends and be just fine. Or I could ride my bike in the neighborhood,” she said. “I learned how to ride a bike from a crackhead. Which is interesting. But you know, I didn’t feel unsafe in my neighborhood. I knew that there were issues in my neighborhood; I was a kid who had to grow up really fast because of the things I was around.”
Nikkia said her mother was always employed, working in kitchens like the one at the Volunteers of America center to keep her children — Nikkia, her two brothers and sister — fed and cared for. But at the same time, her mother struggled with alcohol and drug abuse.
“My mom drank, her boyfriend at the time drank and growing up I always knew they smoked cigarettes and I always thought they smoked weed. They would go into their bedroom and shut the door and say ‘we're handling grown folks business you can't be in here right now,’” Nikkia said. “After they broke up, we moved out to the Shively area. And I found out, my aunt told me, that they were actually smoking crack. I was like devastated.”
Nikkia’s dad died when she was 17 of colon cancer, and struggled with drug addiction and incarceration her whole life.
“But somehow, anytime that my dad came around, I was a total daddy's girl,” she said.
While he was in prison during her childhood, Nikkia’s father used to draw her pictures, then send them home for her to color. He got out of prison when she was in sixth grade.
When Nikkia was 16, she remembers the Christmas that year as being the best one she’d ever had. Her dad and mom were both there, as were her brother, his girlfriend and their children.
“I got to be a part of like, carrying all the presents up from my brother's car in our little apartment. And like seeing [the kids] wake up with like all these frickin’ presents. Like so many presents. It was the fullest I've ever seen our tree and we had so much food and there was so much love that day and excitement and happiness,” Nikkia said. “And I like to think it was for a reason. I like to think that Christmas was so happy because it was the last one that I had with him. So it was really great.”
Nikkia went to Western High School, and was enrolled in the Early College program where high school students can take community college classes for credit. It was there she formally started studying cooking at Jefferson Community and Technical College’s Culinary Arts program.
“It's just a way to wrap your arms around a student who's transitioning into college,” she said of the Early College program. “It's really great for first generation students, especially. My parents didn't go to college and my siblings didn't really go to college. If I would have just went on my own to college I would not have known what to do. I wouldn't have been able to navigate as easily, I wouldn't have had a connection. It's like a bridge.”
Nikkia graduated high school with 35 credits, and just needed another year to get her associate’s degree from JCTC.
“College never felt like a choice; It just felt like something that I had to do,” she said. “I feel like I've always felt the need to escape my situations at home, any hardships at home. I was very active in high school and extracurriculars and I feel like a lot of it was because the longer I stayed at school the less time I had to be at home. So I think the college was just a way for me to solidify a future where I could support myself and be able to be on my own and kind of be free.”
She said studying Culinary Arts made sense, after spending most of her life with her mother, working in kitchens.
“I read cookbooks for fun, because that's what they had in their office,” she said. “Or I would organize canned goods. I would sleep in grocery carts.”
Now, Nikkia is teaching children how to cook at local cooking school Turnip the Beet. Earlier this year, she was chosen as part of the Lee Initiative, Louisville Chef Edward Lee’s new program to provide women in the culinary industry with mentoring. Even so, she doesn’t consider herself a “chef” per se.
“I'm a cooking person,” she said. “I feel like a chef is someone who runs the kitchen. I don't feel like I have the energy for that, or the patience for that, or the stamina for that.”
She might not want to run a kitchen someday, but says she plans to keep cooking in some capacity. But regardless of what she ends up doing, she knows she wants to work with youth.
“I would like to be the person that I needed growing up,” she said. “And that's like, such a cliché, but I wouldn't be where I am and I wouldn't…have as much resilience as I do if it weren't for the adults in my life outside of my home that really stepped in and took care of me whenever I needed someone.
“So I want to be that for someone else, I want to be that for other kids.”
Since this story was recorded in May, Nikkia has accepted a job as a full-time culinary instructor at Iroquois High School. She says she guesses this does, in fact, make her a chef now.
Nikkia Rhodes' story is part of Tough and Universal: Stories of Grit, a partnership between WFPL and IDEAS xLab. A new story will be released every Friday through November 2; for more stories, click here.