After Leaving the NBA Bubble, Chef Lex Grant Is Running Her Own Dream Pop-Up

Lex Grant has cooked in the NBA bubble and for Oprah Winfrey. Now, she’s making the food she grew up with for anyone who wants it — rain, shine, or snowfall

2/25/2021 11:58:00 PM

Chef Lex Grant has cooked in the NBA bubble and for Oprah Winfrey. Now, she’s making the food she grew up with for anyone who wants it—rain, shine, or snowfall (Via EaterPDX)

Lex Grant has cooked in the NBA bubble and for Oprah Winfrey. Now, she’s making the food she grew up with for anyone who wants it — rain, shine, or snowfall

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.

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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. headtopics.com

“She’s ambitious, but she always wants to help.”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’s team prepares curry shrimp and riceChristina Hall / OfficialGrant 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. headtopics.com

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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.”

Chefs layer rice and peas with sauteed cabbage and vegetables, before the chicken lands on topChristina Hall / OfficialGrant 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. headtopics.com

“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.”

“Iknowthey’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.“If people come, I’m going to want this chicken cooked.”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.

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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.

Jerk chickenChristina Hall / OfficialThe 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.

“We were selling out every day.”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.”

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