Thursday, February 11, was not Lex Grant’s day.
The chef arrived at her commissary kitchen at 5:30 a.m. to discover it had flooded completely. At 1:30 p.m., she had to be at the Pearl District bar River Pig with sheet trays full of rice and peas, cabbage, and Jamaican beef patties for her 2 p.m. pop-up, Miss Winnie’s Kitchen. The kitchen at River Pig was too small to accommodate all the cooking she had to do, and she needed to share it with the bar’s current staff; she had no idea where to cook now. She started frantically calling the owner of the space and her coworkers, but no one had woken up. It was time to think on her feet.
Grant is used to adapting to new or challenging environments. The chef has worked for basketball player Carmelo Anthony since October 2016, traveling with him as he was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Houston Rockets, and, in 2019, the Portland Trail Blazers. When Anthony headed to the famed NBA bubble in Orlando, Florida — a campus where NBA players self-quarantined to avoid exposure to COVID-19 during the playoffs — Grant pitched herself to the board and became the only pop-up serving teams within the bubble. And when Grant moved back to Portland with Anthony, missing the Caribbean food she grew up with in New Jersey, she decided to make it herself for the community at large. It was Grant’s first time cooking for the public in years: three Thursday pop-ups, running through February 2021, at River Pig. And here she was, on day one, without a kitchen and with a historic snowstorm heading for Portland.
The repair person didn’t arrive to fix the kitchen until 9 a.m., and the flood left a mess in her workplace. She was hours behind, but she didn’t have time to panic. So she enlisted some of her fellow private chefs — ones she employs through her private chef business, Chef Lex Grant & Co. — to set up outdoor grills at River Pig as the afternoon approached. And, with the clock ticking, she got to work.
For Grant, cooking was always a given. She considered it a vestige of her family’s traditions, the primary chore around the house. “My family was British, Indian, and Caribbean. Women were supposed to cook, clean, and wash,” she said. “I was always raised to know how to cook, because if you didn’t know how to cook, you weren’t a woman.” That meant she spent plenty of time in the kitchen with her grandmother, Winnie. The two of them would grind meat for Jamaican beef patties, blend jerk seasoning for hunks of chicken, and age fruit in brandy, port, and rum for cakes. “It’s very time-consuming,” she said. “It’s an act of love when you make jerk seasoning, wet or dry.”
Grant grew up in Piscataway, New Jersey, where her mother worked for a nonprofit. Her family instilled in her a serious work ethic and dedication to service, but she wasn’t exactly sure what she wanted to do with her life. She considered becoming a nurse, but didn’t feel a real pull to medicine as a field. It wasn’t until her grandfather was dying, when she was a young adult, that she considered cooking as a career. “When my grandfather was passing — he was the primary father figure in my life — he asked me to do something with my life,” she said. “It was gut-wrenching because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. He said, ‘You don’t have to be a nurse that they want you to be. Whatever you do, you will be successful.’” She applied for culinary school at the Art Institute of New York City; on the day she was accepted, her grandfather died. She was on the steps of her school when she got the call that he had passed away.
Elayna Alexander felt nervous. It was 1:30 p.m., and Lex was still nowhere to be found. Alexander, the chef’s assistant and best friend, had been with Grant for three years, and they’d gotten through tighter spots than this; still, the pop-up was about to start. Brandon Mckesey, one of Grant’s other private chefs, had arrived and was starting to set up grills and a large barrel drum smoker on the patio of River Pig, but the snow was beginning to fall as he loaded the grill with imported Jamaican pimento wood. She tried Grant again. “Ten minutes,” Grant told her.
Alexander met Grant through a friend when they were in their early 20s in New Jersey. She started working with the chef casually when Grant began taking on catering jobs out of culinary school. As Grant started getting larger clients, Alexander’s role grew, helping her as she built out her business and began working more nonprofit projects. She and Grant planned to launch the pop-up in New Jersey, but when work brought them to Oregon, they decided to move forward with the Portland pop-up instead. “She’s not afraid to take a risk,” Alexander said. “She’s constantly going. She instills that in all her chefs, too. … She’s not just a chef, she’s an innovator.”
River Pig was empty save for a handful of servers in sweatshirts screwing propane tanks to heat lamps within a large outdoor tent. The interior of the bar had sat quietly for months now, with indoor dining still off the table in Portland; instead, this tent, lightly dotted with the first flakes of snow, served as the bar’s dining room. Flames crackled and clawed at the grate of the grill as Mckesey walked down the stairs toward a black SUV parked toward the front of River Pig’s tent. He grabbed a sheet tray of raw chicken legs, yellow and speckled in jerk seasoning, and started laying them on the grill. Mckesey had also met Grant in New Jersey; she hired him for a job, and he stayed on as one of Grant’s private chefs, who she places with various clients for long-term jobs or one-off events. “She’s a leader in every shape and form,” he said, tending to the various grills and their respective chicken legs.
The smoke seeped out of the barrel drum, wafting down the brick-lined streets of the Pearl. Twenty-somethings in masks and parkas began to approach the front of the bar to be seated. The bar was about to open, and Grant still hadn’t arrived.
“How far is Lex?” Mckesey said, pricking a piece of chicken from a grill with a grilling fork and dropping it in the barrel drum.
“She keeps saying 10 minutes,” Alexander replied. Bartenders started mixing whiskey drinks at the bar, bringing them out to the two small groups under the tent. A Knicks game played on the TVs while customers sipped from pints of beer.
Grant met Carmelo Anthony when he was playing for the Knicks. He had been with the team for half a decade and was about to leave Jersey to join the Thunder. His chef, Courtney Harris, was ready to move on from the job and reached out to Grant as a possible replacement. “My first impression [of Anthony] was, ‘Wow, he’s tall, the tallest person I’ve ever met,’” she said with a laugh. Grant started working regularly for Anthony, and left her home state to follow him to Oklahoma City. Whenever Anthony got traded, she moved with him and began taking on other responsibilities as a part of his team. “Our relationship has evolved,” she said. “He taught me to be a team player, helping him set up his nonprofits, on photo shoots.”
Outside of her work as a private chef, and even before she met Anthony, Grant had developed an interest in humanitarian work. When she was living in Newark, she found herself overwhelmed by the sheer number of her neighbors who were unhoused. She started volunteering for the mutual aid effort Take Care of Harlem, and in 2014, she helped launch an event to feed at least 500 unhoused residents of Newark. It became an annual event. When she began working with Anthony, she had to leave those Newark projects behind, but as she helped Anthony develop his nonprofits, she started considering other options. In Oklahoma City, she volunteered with the American Heart Association’s health education programs, teaching families about label-reading and healthy eating.
While back in Jersey in 2019, years into her tenure with Anthony, a woman reached out to Grant asking for catering help with a school event; she agreed. The details of the event were elusive, and she was asked to agree to undergo security checks. It wasn’t until she arrived at Westside High School that she learned she would be cooking for Oprah Winfrey. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, my auntie? Who I watched every day after school?’” she said. She took a picture with Oprah, but found herself particularly attached to the school and its team. She came back to cook there again and again, and developed a relationship with its faculty and students. “These kids wanted to learn not just about the food, but about me. They were like, ‘You don’t rap, you don’t model, you’re not an Instagram celebrity — how did you do this?’” she said. “I’m now creating a course not only about how to be a private chef, but to be an entrepreneur in the industry.”
In general, Grant sees working with Anthony as a crucial element of her own development; he has allowed her to grow her business as well as her social justice work. “Being with him has given me the opportunity to really grow and develop my company. I’m now a chef-entrepreneur. I’m now placing chefs with other celebrities,” she said. “Just like working with Carmelo was my dream job.”
Grant ran up the stairs in front of River Pig carrying two sheet trays of curried vegetables. Alexander jogged out of the bar to meet her, grabbing the trays out of her arms. “Thanks for holding it down for me,” Grant said. Alexander quickly started putting trays in the warming cabinets, while Grant smiled at the two other chefs in the tiny River Pig kitchen and quickly demonstrated how to peel a plantain to leave the flesh clean.
Grant ladled the curry into a saute pan with shrimp. The smell of turmeric and ginger permeated the space, and the kitchen whirred around her. A man in a black bandana and a mask walked into the kitchen with a box of fuchsia onions and peppers. “Need these?” he asked.
“Yes, and I need you to go get the patties,” she said, not taking her eyes off the pan of shrimp and curry. He departed wordlessly. “It’s nice to have a boyfriend in moments like this,” she said, to no one in particular.
Mckesey walked into the kitchen with a tray of jerk chicken, its original yellow hue darkening to black. She investigated the chicken, silent for a few seconds, before she said, “They’re perfect.”
“I know they’re perfect; I just want you to know what you did,” Mckesey replied, grinning. “I’m gonna slow down a bit. Do you think?”
“Nah,” she said.
Grant started packing up meals of peas and rice, adding a pile of cabbage, a pinch of microgreens. She cracked the chicken thigh over the container, so the juices dripped down onto the peas and rice. The takeout containers bulged with their contents as Grant shut them; Alexander immediately grabbed the closed containers and placed them in a paper bag. “Here, send them with these, for the wait,” she said, adding an extra container of fried plantains. Mckesey returned to his spot in front of the grills, rolling his eyes as the snow and wind put out his fire.
As the Meters played in the background, Grant fell into a deep focus. The team had 15 preorders to work through, and there was no time to waste. The Jamaican beef patties were still AWOL, and customers were waiting for their orders outside. But this is when Grant shines most in the eyes of those who know and work with her.
The NBA bubble was born out of necessity. Professional basketball is a multibillion-dollar industry, and many people saw the shutdown of the NBA season as the moment the shoe dropped early in the coronavirus pandemic. In June, however, the NBA felt pressure to get players back to the court, and figured out a strategy as the season resumed: Players would travel to Orlando in July for the season, under a strict lockdown they’d call the bubble. No one could leave the space or interact with people outside the bubble; coaches, players, and other essential personnel would be tested regularly and restricted to that area.
Grant didn’t want to bail on Anthony. She decided to present a potential dining option to the vendor directors within the bubble; she was planning on renting out a space, hoping to land a spot on the approved vendor list. Instead, the directors offered her a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: Because many of the players knew her, she essentially became an in-bubble restaurant, on the campus, for all of the teams on-site. She’d work all day, starting with juices for the Lakers in the mornings, and then making soul food staples like catfish and grits in the evenings. She enlisted the help of chef Joy Dario, but Dario couldn’t arrive until after the pop-up launched; two of Grant’s friends, Glenroy Brown and Danavia King, helped set things up during the first week.
Still, it was a bare-bones crew, and Grant was taking on a days’ worth of cooking. She made meals that were picked up by Alexander, who offered contactless delivery to the players at their hotel. Grant would start her day at 4 a.m., processing the day’s orders; she didn’t finish cooking until 11 p.m. “Once I was in there, it was balls-to-the-wall, work work work, don’t look around because you haven’t slept in days,” she said, laughing.
They switched up the menus weekly, working absurd hours for weeks on end. As word spread, Grant started receiving special orders via her cell phone, people calling for pasta, catfish, jerk salmon. “Her tenacity definitely showed up in the bubble,” Alexander said. “We were working constantly. … But that’s what happens in an experimental environment.”
Grant spent approximately 60 days in the bubble, then transitioned back to her private chef work and nonprofit work in Jersey. “It’s extremely challenging to be so fluid with your life, uprooting and going to a new city; you learn to be minimalist over time. It gets lonely, it weighs on your mental and physical [health],” she said. “But I don’t focus on the bad aspects or the challenges, because the rewards so outweigh the challenges. This opportunity, all the growth, all the challenges, have taught me so much about myself.”
Kevin Spann leaned against the doorframe to the kitchen with a box of beef patties resting on his shoulder.
“Oh my God, you’re amazing,” Grant said, reaching for the pan in his arms.
Spann had become a part of the kitchen team, gathering the Jamaican beef patties from Grant’s home kitchen and slipping them into little white paper bags. Those beef patties, made the way her grandmother taught her, were the missing piece. Customers began to pick up their paper bags of chicken, curry shrimp, and beef patties. Grant tended to her dishes — family recipes — with a long day still ahead. The Trail Blazers planned to stop by the bar after the game, and she’d have a pile of hungry athletes to feed once again. But things were finally starting to calm down. Mckesey flipped the birds outside, smoke from the barrel drum rising as the snow fell quietly around it.
The snow kept falling, into the evening and for days afterward; it became a disastrous weekend for restaurants across the city, which were forced to close on big-ticket days like Valentine’s Day. Grant would return to the restaurant the week afterward, making oxtails and yams, coconut cake and rum-soaked black cake, recipes carried by her family for generations. After February 22, the pop-up will end, and Grant will come up with some new challenge, some new thing to do: She’ll focus on her nonprofit, maybe, or conceive of a concept for another pop-up. For her, even on the hard days, that freedom is worth it.
“I originally thought I was going to be a restaurateur. But God led the way, and I became a personal chef,” she said. “I get to create whatever I want. If I want to do a kitchen takeover, I can; if I want to write a book, I can. Challenges are challenges, but if you really love something, you want to stick with it, that’s part of the journey. There’s always lows with highs. I feel like I haven’t even gotten to my highest high yet.”