.What’s cooking with Novato’s Curtis Aikens

Celebrity chef, author, athletic coach, master gardener, literacy advocate and diabetes educator—Curtis Aikens Sr. is a Renaissance man.

I spent a couple of days last week getting to know Aikens, who is instantly likable. We met at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Academy in Marin City, where he’s transforming a neglected garden and teaching children how to grow fruits, vegetables and flowers.

Aikens, 65, puts his heart and soul into the project, not to mention some serious sweat equity. On a sunny and hot afternoon, I watched him haul huge bags of mulch, mow the lawn and weed. But his favorite gardening activity is working with the kids, sixth graders from teacher Michelle Rampulla’s class.

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music in the park san jose

A few children took me on a garden tour, proudly identifying each plant or tree. They showed me radishes that had just been harvested and gave me a lesson in root vegetables. Aikens’ work is having an impact.

“Curtis is great at connecting with children,” Rampulla said. “He knows how to talk and engage with them.”

Rampulla also shared that Aikens, despite his great success, is humble. He doesn’t want the children to focus on his celebrity status.

Yet, Aikens is quite the celebrity, a familiar face to people nationwide. In 1990, he began appearing regularly on ABC’s The Home Show, and then on Good Morning America. Three years later, he was hired as one of the original chefs on the Food Network, where he spent the next decade hosting his own cooking shows, including Pick of the Day, From My Garden, Meals Without Meat and Food in a Flash

He developed a large and loyal following, among them three first ladies—Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama. The chef was invited to the White House several times, and not just to cook. Bush, also a literacy advocate, recognized him for his work in the field.

Growing up in Georgia, Aikens never learned to read. But he faked it. He faked it so well that after graduating high school, he was accepted into college, playing football for Southern University. However, it was nerve-wracking to keep up the façade, so he transferred to the University of Georgia, where he again played football.

“I run from Southern to the University of Georgia so I can hide some more, and I got another year to pretend,” Aikens said.

Even his family didn’t know his well-guarded secret. He fled Georgia in 1981 and moved to Marin. Although he started a produce company, illiteracy stopped him again. He found it difficult to run the business without being able to read and write.

Aikens felt defeated. Then he saw a public service announcement on TV that spoke to him.

“So, this commercial pretty much said, ‘You’re not the only one who can’t read. If you want help, call us, the Literacy Volunteers of America in Marin,’” Aikens said.

He dialed the number on the TV screen, which led him to meet regularly at the Fairfax Library with two volunteer tutors from the group. At the age of 26, Aikens learned to read.

For the first time, he could read letters from his mom. She had often asked her son why he didn’t write back, and he replied that he liked calling her.

Today, Aikens speaks openly about literacy and his own struggles. His goal is to motivate others who can’t read and write.

“That’s what it’s all about—getting people to read,” Aikens said. “I tell folks, ‘If you read, you can succeed.’”

Reading opened a new world for Aikens. In 1986, he closed his Marin business and moved to Manhattan. He became a “foodie” while working at Balducci’s, the city’s premier gourmet grocery store at the time. From there, he moved into food styling for television commercials and then to craft services, where he prepared food for the cast and crew of television shows.

His mother wanted him to return to Georgia, so he picked up and moved again. In his hometown of Conyers, he started another produce company and opened a produce store, both family businesses. Then, he wrote his first book, Curtis Aikens’ Guide to the Harvest.

A publicist friend sent Aikens’ bio to TV stations. WXIA in Atlanta invited him to discuss his book on one of their shows. He was a hit. The station asked Aikens back again and again, eventually hiring him for a weekly segment. Soon enough, he began appearing regularly on more than a dozen television stations in the Southeast, talking about how to select the best produce and showing people how to cook it.

ABC’s The Home Show had him come on for a five-minute segment about zucchini. The producers realized the chef had a certain je ne sais quoi, and he walked out with a contract from the network. Aikens had reached for the stars, and he had made it.

While he guest hosted The Home Show with Sarah Purcell, they did a segment on literacy. He didn’t know a word on the teleprompter, and while on the air asked Purcell about the word. A few seconds later, he burst into tears, believing the stumble would end his television career. Instead, the phones started ringing at ABC, all supportive of Aikens. Literacy centers, too, received calls from people wanting to learn to read.

Dan Rather heard about the incident, prompting him to feature Aikens’ journey to literacy in his book, The American Dream: Stories from the Heart of Our Nation.

Eventually, Aikens made his way back to Marin, settling in Novato in the early ’90s. He commuted to New York and Los Angeles to continue his television career. In 1993, Aikens joined the Food Network, and his star continued to rise. A decade later, he retired from the cable network to spend more time with his children.

The downtime also allowed him to fulfill a lifetime goal. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Limestone University in South Carolina.

Aikens enrolled in a graduate program at Dominican University in San Rafael. Attending classes wasn’t enough to keep the student busy, and he signed on as the assistant women’s basketball coach at the school. In 2013, he graduated with a master’s degree in education.

“I love learning, especially now that I can read,” Aikens said.

The celebrity chef also loves sharing what he’s learned. Diagnosed with type two diabetes, Aikens took on another project, educating others with the disease.

“I got a chance to work with incredible dietitians and nutritionists, and I learned so much,” Aikens said. “I travel the country teaching people with diabetes how to cook good food that’s good for the body.”

There’s also volunteer work—he recently served on Marin County’s Human Rights Commission and a working group that developed the framework for the civilian sheriff’s oversight commission.

Somehow, Aikens also found the time for a new two-episode cooking show, Cooking with Curtis. The first episode is airing in April on Lifetime Real Women.

“I built the shows around the Costco rotisserie chicken,” Aikens said. “We’re doing six recipes from one $4.99 bird. If you’re a family on a budget, you can get two of those birds and feed four people for a week.”

Aikens comes up with new ideas constantly. Clearly, he has more in store for the world, and I’m eager to learn what’s next on the menu.

Nikki Silverstein
Nikki Silverstein is an award-winning journalist who has written for the Pacific Sun since 2005. She escaped Florida after college and now lives in Sausalito with her Chiweenie and an assortment of foster dogs. Send news tips to [email protected].

3 COMMENTS

  1. Nikki
    I happen to know Curtis and in all the articles I have read about him over the years – I have never read one as accurate and comprehensive as yours! You are an amazing investigative reporter and Pacific Sun is lucky to have you on their staff. Thank you for featuring a great resident of Marin.

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  2. I have known Curtis for about years and a better man you will never meet, I wasn’t fully aware of all the history and achievements you listed but I am not surprised and it’s my pleasure to call him a great friend
    If we all could put a fraction of the time into the community as Curtis does, then the world would be a better place
    Sincerely
    Rory Moore
    Sausalito

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  3. Curtis is my brother for life. He is the most generous person I know with his huge heart and love he gives to all he meets . His
    Heart and soul has changed the world where ever he goes leaving a trail of love and gratitude . Love you brother

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