Habibti Loves

Chef Keeta’s culinary journey

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Habibti Magazine recently had the honour of interviewing Keeta Hardin; enlisted Chief Petty Officer in the American Navy and private Chef.

Bahrain is one of many homes that Keeta has made for herself and while she’s here in our beautiful Island, we wanted to hear her story; her passion for cooking, serving her country and travelling the world.

Keeta grew up in Springfield Tennessee, in a single parent home with her two sisters, and from a very young age Keeta gravitated towards cooking.  With Keetas mother having to work to provide for her children, it was left to the children to fend for themselves. Despite being forbidden to go into the kitchen, it’s where Keeta was most comfortable. “I remember being four years old and standing on a step stool in the kitchen cooking”.

Professionally, Keeta has been cooking for over 15 years, as a private chef for clients, catering events and competing in championships. And in 2013, Keeta enrolled at L’Ecole Culinary Institute, in Memphis Tennessee and graduated in 2014 in Culinary Arts.

Cooking has also meshed well with her military career; having been in the Navy for nearly nineteen years, Keeta has cooked in every ship she has been stationed on, cooking holiday dinners for the sailors, soldiers, marines, and the airmen.

Keeta’s extensive military experience has taken her on an adventure around the world, as well as whetting her appetite for knowledge for different cuisines of the world.

For Keeta, it was the military that provided the foundation her and her son, Omar needed. And although it hasn’t been easy; as a single parent, raising a child and being in a male dominated field; Keeta found solace in the military.

However it is her love and passion for cooking that prevails over everything else. “I love my job in the military, but what I love most is being able to make an impact on the lives of other people, and it doesn’t really matter to me how I do it; what uniform I’m wearing, whether it’s a chef jacket or its my navy uniform, it doesn’t matter but where I’m happiest is when I’m in the kitchen. If I’ve had a really bad day, I cook.  I’m at peace when I’m in the kitchen”.

And that love for cooking was not only ignited at a young age, it was further ignited when travelling with the Navy; “I love the opportunities the Navy has given us, as far as being able to raise my son and the opportunity to travel the world.  We’ve travelled extensively and wherever we’ve lived, I’ve soaked up the local culture, the cuisine, the spices and traditional recipes. I’ve met some good-hearted, genuine people and I’ve been inspired by the food and culture of food just by them alone.

With the world in front of her to – literally, sample and taste, it is the Italian cuisine that holds a special place in Keetas heart, “people wouldn’t expect me to know how to make a sauce from scratch or how to cook al dente pasta because I’m African American, they think because I’m a black woman I’m better at frying chicken.

I’m actually really good at frying chicken and I am amazing at making candy yams, backed macaroni and cheese, all the things that we’re known for; comfort food in the South. I’m known for that and I’m good at that, but I am equally good at making an Italian dish, a Lebanese dish, a Spanish dish – anything that I’ve had the opportunity to experience, I gravitate towards. And I can quite easily replicate a dish that I have tried even once, and I do that often and I love it!”

Another reason Italian cuisine ranks high for Keeta is the pride Italians have for their food, she says “Italian people have a lot of pride over their food, and it’s all about the family. When Italians eat, Italians eat! And Italians want everybody to eat! Spanish are also very similar, and I also love their cuisine and to cook their food”.

This same mothering, nurturing and community instinct that Keeta describes, is also a strong personality trait of hers – you only need to spend five minutes with Keeta before she offers to feed you – and this is where Keeta flourishes the most;   She is the mother who creates culinary delights effortlessly, she is the aunt who insists you stay for dinner, she is the sister who bakes your favourite cake, just the way you like it and she is the friend who knows exactly which soup remedy will fix your broken heart.

It is no surprise then, that Keeta has been extremely successful, having recently organised a Soul Food Brunch; wholesome comfort food from the south, at Upstairs Downstairs Restaurant, Adliya.

To successfully bring a unique concept such as a Soul Food Brunch to the Middle East, from concept to execution, is a great feat and accomplishment.

And Keeta has certainly achieved that and more; creating her own rich experiences and making memories in Bahrain.

It’s these rich experiences and memories that inspire Keeta to do something quite remarkable for the future. “I’m grateful for the Military and when the time comes to retire and work on my own passion and my purpose in life, I’ll be ready”.

When the time comes, Keeta plans to finally put her roots down, and figuratively unpack – in the most symbolic way possible; “one day I will own a restaurant to honour those individuals who have inspired me throughout my military career and throughout my travels”.

Everything for the restaurant, including the menu has already been lovingly planned, “every dish is in homage to the friends I have made on my journey, to honour those who were there for Omar and I.

As a single parent, being in the military and law enforcement and working the hours the job required, wasn’t easy. I had plenty of people tell me I wasn’t going to make it; because I am a female and I have a child. But there were a few who encouraged me, believed in me and supported me and my restaurant will be in honour to those individuals that have touched my heart”.

Keeta has described, not a restaurant as such, but a memoir about good friends and great memories, a place where Keetas story will be told time and time again, over a beautiful meal.


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