2021 Cook of the Year: Nikkia Rhodes
At 24, this Kentucky native has forged a path in the culinary world that she didn't think would be possible. Raised in Louisville's Smoketown neighborhood, Rhodes sometimes had just crackers and peanut butter for supper, but she always understood the value of giving back. Her mother and grandmother managed the Volunteers of America family shelter kitchen, and as she spent time there, she saw the power of serving others and sharing a meal.
In high school, she met Food Network star Damaris Phillips, who encouraged her to enroll in advanced-level cooking classes at Jefferson Community & Technical College. Soon after that, she was accepted into the LEE Initiative's Women Culinary & Spirits Program, which was cofounded by chef Edward Lee to offer female chefs training and mentorship.
Rhodes wanted to be a teacher, and in 2018, she started a culinary program at Iroquois High School. "I was given a room with one sink, moldy carpets, and 140 students," she says. "Now we have nice things, quality ovens and stoves, equipment the kids can be proud of."
Last year, just as her classroom kitchen was coming together, COVID-19 hit. Then Louisville erupted in protests over the deaths of Breonna Taylor and later David McAtee, a beloved local barbecue chef. When Rhodes saw a photo of McAtee at the Volunteers of America kitchen that she grew up in, she wanted to honor him in the same way. Working again with the LEE Initiative, Rhodes helped establish the McAtee Community Kitchen and took on the responsibility of running it, with help from her culinary students. "I am an example of how people can have a positive impact on your life," she says. "If I can show my students how to find their talents and then use them to serve others and better their communities, that is the best part of my job."