Rakim Gaines was nine years old when the owner of Yoshida Express, the East Asheville neighborhood hibachi restaurant Gaines was enamored with in his youth, noticed just how much he was hanging around. Gaines would come in simply to watch the chefs in action, so the owner finally asked, “Hey, you want to cook?”
Soon after, he’d stop off at the restaurant on his way home from school for a few months here and there over the next two years. There he was, a nine-year-old kid making chicken, steak, shrimp, and fried rice on the grill a couple afternoons a week. The owner called it an unpaid internship, but Gaines was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the other cooks, doling out heaping portions of rice and completing whatever cooking tasks he was given. Customers couldn’t believe it. “Yeah, it really surprised them to see this kid cooking — especially in my nice school clothes,” he recalls.
Now 31, Gaines is the executive chef at downtown Asheville’s tapas restaurant Capella on 9. It’s not just an achievement for a young guy who had to drop out of culinary school. It’s indicative of the iniquitous state of Asheville kitchens: Gaines says he’s the only Black head chef that he knows in the city, a distinction that continues to confound him.
Asheville’s pointed lack of Black chefs isn’t new or discrete — especially not when the hospitality industry, or at least some corners of it, have been coming to grips with the industry’s legacy of inequality. Aside from Gaines, the highest-placed Black chef in Asheville is Cleophus Hethington, chef de cuisine at Benne on Eagle. [Update: After this article published, Hethington announced his departure from Benne]
Having grown up in Asheville, Gaines describes Asheville as a liberal city that’s generally “super accepting.” But Gaines is still bothered by a childhood incident where the owner of a convenience store held him and his brother on false accusations of shoplifting, even though the boys regularly bought candy there. The siblings had to wait until their father arrived — their dad is white and their mom is Black — before the store owner would let them leave, even though their pockets were empty.
“You don’t think your color is affecting your life,” Gaines says, “but after that, when you walk into a store, you realize people are watching you.”
To protect her boys from the realities of racism and colorism, Gaines said his mom, Charla Gaines, wanted them to stay home. That was usually fine with Gaines, who spent most of his childhood watching his mom cook soul food — green beans, fried pork chops, collard greens, rice and gravy, baked mac and cheese, and her specialty, a Mississippi pot roast slow cooked with a packet of ranch seasoning and pepperoncini. Gaines eventually learned to make all of those dishes, but he also binge-watched cooking shows, jotting down recipes in a notebook he kept by the television. He was 10 years old when he attempted an Emeril Lagasse recipe for Korean beef made from thin-shaved London broil, and the new-to-him soy-teriyaki slurry accompanying it made him want to try more advanced cooking techniques.
Even with this newfound cooking hobby and the unpaid internship at Yoshida Express, his parents discouraged him from becoming a chef. This was the early 2000s, when downtown Asheville was largely still boarded up. He says his parents figured the only local jobs he could get as a chef were in fast food. But Gaines enrolled in Asheville–Buncombe Technical Community College while still in high school, with plans to get a culinary degree. Two years in, his son was born, and Gaines knew he had to prioritize caring for his new family. He quit school and took a job shucking oysters at Asheville’s Lobster Trap.
He worked his way up through kitchens around town until the new AC Hotel hired him as the sous chef at Capella on 9 in 2018. Three months later the hotel brought in an executive chef who lasted only a few months, leaving Gaines to run the kitchen.
Knowing there were few Black chefs in town — not just head chefs but cooks of any kind — Gaines didn’t figure he could get the executive chef job. Then, his fiancée and son encouraged him to try. “They told me, ‘You need to go in there and take it. You need to go in there and push.’”
Gaines spent five months trying to convince the corporate owners that he was ready for the promotion to head chef, something that still irks him today. He knew he was capable and qualified. He doesn’t want to think it was about the color of his skin, but he also looks around town and sees almost no chefs who look like him. “I had to work really, really hard to get them to trust me to be the executive chef,” he says.
At first, Gaines worked with a Spanish-style tapas menu prescribed by the corporation. Now, five years in, Gaines says he has full control and changes up the menu twice a year with what’s in season. While the original menu stayed truer to the tapas theme, Gaines said he couldn’t see doing a traditional Spanish theme considering Katie Button’s Cúrate has had such success with it just blocks away. Instead, Gaines said he tried to add more of his own history. “This is a menu that’s 100 percent me,” he says. On weekend nights, his kitchen staff of three handles 250 customers each evening, plus large banquets. He rolled out his summer menu in April, adding scallop ceviche, mussels, grilled salmon with beet puree, a lobster roll, and scallops with romesco. Along the way, he’s taken ample opportunities to infuse his own point of view into the menu’s headlining dishes, like a braised short rib slow-cooked with smoked paprika, garlic, cumin, and a broth spiked with chipotle in adobo and pepperoncinis. When his mom came in to try it, she said, “This tastes like my Mississippi pot roast.”
She was right. Gaines says he took inspiration from that favorite from his childhood, giving it a bit of a Spanish flavor to match the restaurant’s theme but staying true to the tender, well-spiced dish his mom still makes.
“All my life, I’ve been telling her, ‘Someday, I’ll be old enough to cook better than you can,’” he says. “But even if that’s true some day, she will get the respect, because she’s good.”
Gaines isn’t sure how Asheville’s restaurant scene can improve its diversity. Asheville is a place known for its left-leaning sensibilities — it’s common to see “Black Lives Matter” signs in yards — and so Gaines remains hopeful that things will change.
For now, Gaines is choosing to focus on what he can do within his role, hoping he can encourage more Black cooks, chefs, and hungry nine-year-olds to imagine themselves behind the grill or stove at the city’s leading restaurants. And in doing so, he hopes to continue honoring the cooks who truly opened the door to his first cooking exploits all those years ago.