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The Love Factory

Martin Booe has contributed to Bon Appetit and is the co-author, with French chef Ludo Lefebvre, of the cookbook "Crave."

At 613 Imperial St., a weathered brick and stucco building in the shadow of the 6th Street bridge, there are aromas that don’t add up in industrial downtown: the come-hither whiff of fried chicken, the heartwarming aroma of cornbread.

But step inside the unmarked metal security gate and it all begins to make sense. Holding court at the monster Wolf range in the main hall of Soul Folks Cafe and Throw Down Catering, Yealang Smith is a one-woman factory of comfort food, and just plain comfort.

“People come for food and nourishment, honey bunny, but they’re also coming for something else,” she says, sliding a plate heaped with braised short ribs, smoked chicken, smothered potatoes and salad toward me. I’m sitting at a 10-foot-long rough-hewn table in the middle of the cavernous hall, where Smith has served fried catfish to celebrities such as Jude Law, Diane Keaton and Prince, and jambalaya to the homeless and down-and-out who wander the nearby streets.

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“There’s an X factor to it all,” Smith continues. “I want you to get up from the table feeling like you’re ready to take on the world.”

As the sun beams through skylights, she cranks up Dave Mathews on the stereo and returns to the stove. If there’s a secret to her success, it may be that she dances while she cooks--or that she cooks in a 5,000-square-foot loft. She reckons it has a lot to do with the latter.

“What’s good about finding an unusual space is it opens your mind,” Smith says. “It wakes you up. This is a factory of love!”

Smith, 35, grew up on the Westside and has been cooking since she was barely tall enough to peer over a kitchen counter. Her mother, Shamala, an artist and a guidance counselor at Dorsey High School, was an early advocate of healthful soul food, banishing Crisco and lard, which in traditional Southern cooking nearly qualify as food groups, in favor of garlic-infused olive oil, sea salt, lemon and fresh herbs.

One day, Shamala left her daughter at home with a baby-sitter who nodded off on the job. While the sitter slumbered, Yealang, who was 9, whipped up a seven-course meal. “My parents came home and there was dinner on the table,” she says. “The kitchen was spotless. Everything was perfect. My mother says she was horrified--it was just a little too weird.” But prescient.

Cooking for a living wasn’t Smith’s first inclination, though. She earned a political science degree from Howard University and went to work for an accounting firm in L.A. as an event planner. It was then that she realized that caterers charged more for a single dinner than she earned in a month. “I thought, ‘There’s money in this!’ So I started perfecting my cooking skills.”

Her first gig was her best friend’s baby shower--Louisiana-style fried chicken; macaroni and cheese; kale, mustard and collard greens; red beans and rice--and the very next week she was hired to cater a video for Usher Raymond. Pretty soon she was feeding the video crews of rap artists such as Master P, Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls. Business was so good that she had to move her operation from her apartment to a commercial kitchen on Traction Avenue in 1994.

Then six years ago she went looking for a space where she could not only cater private parties but also host them, and dish out by-reservation-only lunches and dinners on the side.

The building on Imperial Street had served, over the years, as a fragrance factory and a sex-toy manufacturing plant. When she saw it, she knew.

“It was exactly what I needed,” she recalls. “I work really crazy hours, and being able to walk upstairs when I was done, and get right out of bed and hit it again the next morning made all the difference.”

Her living quarters--equipped with a sunken bathtub worthy of Cleopatra and a Bowflex machine on which she suffers three days a week with a personal trainer--are usually off-limits to visitors. Downstairs, the main hall and side rooms, furnished with shabby chic sofas and billowing taffeta drapes, have welcomed the likes of ex-Laker John Salley, PBS’ Tavis Smiley, actress Mandy Moore and singer Meshell Ndegeocello.

This summer, Smith plans to open a traditional restaurant, called Soul, on Hollywood Boulevard. But she won’t abandon the loft on Imperial Street.

“This will always be the heart of Soul,” she says. “Things happen here that couldn’t happen anywhere else. There’s kind of a magic to this place.”

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Soul Folk Secrets

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Garlic Crab

Serves 4

1/2 cup olive oil

2 whole heads of garlic, finely chopped (about 1 cup)

2 tablespoons fresh basil, minced

2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, chopped

2 whole Dungeness crabs, cleaned and cut up

1/8 teaspoon cayenne

1/2 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste

1 Roma tomato, chopped (optional)

Coarsely chopped parsley, for garnish

Heat the oven to 500 degrees. In a large ovenproof pan, add the olive oil and saute the garlic and herbs for 1 minute over medium-high heat. Add the crab and seasonings, and saute for 4 minutes. Then add the tomato, if desired, cover the pan and place in the oven for 15 minutes. Garnish with chopped parsley and a generous spoonful of the herb-infused olive oil from the bottom of the pan.

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Fried Chicken

Serves 4 to 6

1 cup soy milk

2 free-range eggs

2 teaspoons Louisiana Hot Sauce

1 teaspoon Italian seasoning

1/2 teaspoon cayenne

1/2 teaspoon crushed rosemary

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon onion powder

31/2-4 pounds free-range chicken pieces

21/2 cups coconut oil

2 cups flour

2 teaspoons paprika

2 tablespoons seasoned salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon parsley flakes

1 teaspoon cayenne

In a large bowl, combine the soy milk, eggs, hot sauce, 1/2 teaspoon cayenne, rosemary, garlic powder and onion powder. Add the chicken pieces and marinate in the refrigerator for 3-4 hours. Remove and drain. Heat the coconut oil in a frying pan to 330-340 degrees. Put the flour, paprika, seasoned salt, black pepper, parsley flakes and cayenne in a paper bag and add the marinated chicken, a piece or two at a time. Shake until each piece is coated. Place the chicken in the hot oil (the chicken may need to be cooked in batches) and fry, covered, for 10-14 minutes, depending on the size of the pieces. Turn the chicken pieces once, leave the cover off and continue to cook for for 5 to 7 minutes, or until the pieces are a rich brown. Serve with extra hot sauce if desired.


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