Chef Rakim Gaines of Cappella on 9Point of View: Rakim Gaines paints plates with color and cooks from his soul

Rakim Gaines, executive chef of  Capella on 9, is not a procrastinator. But he waits until the current season is about to bid adieu before he begins ruminating on the next.

“We have a spring/summer menu and a fall/winter menu, and I don’t start thinking about the next one until a couple weeks out,” he says. “I have a better thought process when I’m getting excited about fall coming back or spring coming back, and I’m feeling that new season.”

And color, says Gaines, is his first consideration. “A lot of my dishes are super bright and colorful. You eat with the eyes first, and I want to create that sense of anticipation.”

Even before their first bite, guests on the ninth floor of downtown Asheville’s AC Hotel have drunk in the beauty surrounding the rooftop bar and restaurant, one of Asheville’s most popular perches for scenic drinking and dining. In fact, it was the elevated location that drew the rising young chef seeking to elevate his career to apply for a job at the Marriott property when it was still under construction.

“I thought a kitchen on the ninth floor downtown sounded so cool,” he recalls. “I knew the concept was Spanish tapas, and I had no experience in that cuisine, but I still applied for the executive chef position. Instead, I got the sous chef position. But three months later, the executive chef wasn’t working out, so they gave me a six-month tryout. I was named executive chef in March 2018.”

Gaines was just 27 years old at the time, and though Spanish food was not on his resume, he toted a catalog of personal and professional experience that belied his age. He also held an unwavering goal to be an executive chef that began in childhood.

The youngest of three brothers, he was raised in East Asheville; both parents worked and his mother began cooking dinner as soon as she got home each day. “There wasn’t a lot of time or money, so we didn’t have the option to be picky eaters,” Gaines says with a laugh. “We ate what she cooked. Fortunately, I loved what she cooked, which was primarily soul food — really good collard greens with pork, baked mac and cheese, fried pork chops, baked chicken, fried fish. I studied what she did.”

By the time he was around 9 years old, his mother trusted him to prepare family meals. At around the same age, he began spending a couple of afternoons a week in his first professional kitchen, and there’s a photo to prove it. “A family friend was a hibachi chef at Yoshida Express in East Asheville and a couple afternoons a week he’d let me cook with him. I was 9 years old, and I felt like I could do this.”

When he wasn’t in his home kitchen or at Yoshida, he was parked in front of the television watching Great Chefs of the World on the Discovery Channel. “This was before Food Network, and it was pretty basic, but it was very authentic and genuine,” he remembers. “I would have my notepad ready and wrote down the recipes as fast as I could so I could try them myself.”

Unlike other kids his age whose superheroes ranged from Superman to Michael Jordan, his were knife-wielding chefs. “You can’t be Superman if you can’t fly. Nobody is Michael Jordan but Michael Jordan. I always wanted to be a chef, and I felt like if I worked hard enough, I could do it,” Gaines says.

He enrolled in the culinary program at A-B Tech and immersed himself in formal training, learning the vocabulary of the culinary industry and French cuisine. A 32-hour per week/10-week internship was required before the final semester, but by then, he and his partner had a baby and an apartment, so he took a full-time job at The Lobster Trap. “They needed oyster shuckers, and I got thrown right in,” he says. “I had never done it, and it wasn’t easy, but I decided to bear down and get better and faster.”

Gaines also resumed a habit he began as a child — closely observing his environment. “I watched the other stations and tried to understand what they were doing without them having to stop and explain it to me. After a while, I asked Mike [McCarty, then executive chef, now also owner] if I could try the sauté station, and he said yes. I was pretty good at it and after a while, he promoted me to sous chef.”

But there was one more skill he wanted to master. “I just really wanted to learn how to cook eggs very specifically, every kind of egg.” So Gaines segued from dinner at The Lobster Trap to breakfast at the Corner Kitchen, where he learned how to juggle multiple styles very quickly, the proper technique for basted eggs, and how to make the perfect omelet. With that knowledge in his toolbox, he was ready for something new,  so in August 2017, Gaines took the sous chef position nine floors above Broadway.

The AC Hotel requires a couple of brand standards — a European-style breakfast buffet, patatas bravas on the evening menu, and 6-month aged Manchego and prosciutto on the charcuterie board. Otherwise, the entire menu is created by Gaines. He is especially fond of the short rib entrée, which reminds him of the soul food he grew up on. “It’s slow-cooked like the pot roast my mother made,” he says. “It’s on a cabbage escabeche and has a spring pea purée, so it’s got the pops of color.”

Though Spanish tapas rely on a fairly consistent repertoire of classics and standards, Gaines tries to mix it up, source locally as much as possible, and bring the season onto the plate. “In spring, we had spring peas, ramps, leeks, and asparagus,” he says. “With summer coming, we’ll transition to that produce. I have a pretty young staff, but they have great ideas, and I keep an open door for them to try new things and see how they work.”

Gaines is fully aware of the paucity of Black chefs in Asheville and believes that is due in part to a lack of financial resources for formal education and experience and exposure in finer kitchens. “When you don’t know the vocabulary, you are automatically intimidated in those environments,” he says. “There is a lot of work to do in Asheville. There is a lack of opportunity, but not a lack of talent.”

He sees that talent in communities where people of color live. “There’s always somebody’s uncle throwing ribs on the grill and somebody’s grandma selling plates of fish, greens, and mac and cheese on Sundays,” says Gaines. “They’re making amazing food.”

In Gaines’ view, soul food doesn’t get the respect it deeply deserves and changing that drives him. “I want to advocate for that cuisine and its history to be taught at culinary schools,” he says. “When the time is right, I want to take all that I have learned, including French cuisine and Spanish tapas, and open a full-service restaurant to fuse soul food and French technique, make soul food tapas, and make every plate beautiful.”

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Written by Kay West
Photos courtesy of Capella on 9