Chef Curtis Aikens will probably read from a prepared speech. Consider it a serious accomplishment that is meant to inspire, as Aikens, 56, speaks Friday at the annual Love of Literacy Luncheon at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.
Aikens is a celebrity chef, well known to TV audiences of the Food Network, Good Morning America, Oprah and Entertainment Tonight. He’s a college grad who learned to read at age 26 – after starting his own produce business. He’s written four books, still appears on TV and now travels and speaks to literacy groups and to student chefs to inspire them to greater things.
I spoke with Aikens by phone.
Jan Norris: You learned to read after graduating high school as an adult. What prompted you to learn after getting along well enough to own your own business?
Curtis Aikens: I was watching TV one night and saw this commercial for a literacy program. I always knew I had a problem. Irealized I needed help learning and called and talked to the Literacy Coalition of America.
JN: Isn’t it hard to work in a kitchen not knowing how to read recipes?
Aikens: Actually, it’s easy since you’re working with your hands. I learned all my new recipes by watching the chef. I’ve always been a fast learner. Sanitation and other rules I picked up in staff meetings. So it wasn’t a problem for me. I think it’s more of a problem in other industries where they depend on language.
JN: Was there any one recipe you jumped on once you could read?
Aikens: Not one recipe, but once I learned to read, I could research all those great chefs of old that I was fortunate to get to cook with or who inspired me so much: Edna Lewis, Patrick Clark, Julia Child, of course. I never would have known all these great chefs if I hadn’t learn to read. And I can now take my own family recipes and put them into a book form. I’ve already written four books, and have a new one coming out on weight loss. It’s with a publisher right now.
JN: Today, you travel and speak to adult chefs to help them get help?
Aikens: This is my passion. Once I learned to read, I wanted to help people, and realized if I had a bright enough light to shine, I could inspire others. And I can do that through the culinary world. There are other people in the food world who have reading problems. I want to tell them to ask for the chef’s help – don’t be afraid to speak up and get help – there are programs everywhere – and it will change your life.
JN: What about the kids?
Aikens: I want to speak to every schoolchild in America. That’s my goal. I want to let them know they could become a doctor at 56. I am truly blessed with my success, and want to share that and tell them they can succeed at any age.
Curtis Aikens’ books include: Curtis Cooks with Heart and Soul, Greengrocer’s Guide to the Harvest, Curtis Aikens’ Guide to the Harvest and Reading Rainbow – How to make an Apple Pie and See the World, co-authored with actors LeVar Burton and Debbie Herb.
Love of Literacy Luncheon
- Sponsor: The Palm Beach County Literacy Coalition
- When: Friday, March 11, 11:30 a.m.
- Where: Cohen Pavilion at the Kravis Center, West Palm Beach
- Cost: $100
- Tickets and information: Call 561-776-7659, or 800-273-1030