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  • Tara Crutchfield

Love, Passion, and Skill on a Plate

I sit at a table beneath an oak tree at the Winter Haven Farmers Market. The music, breeze, and company are nice. I take a bite of Chef Ken’s candied yams, and suddenly, I’m back to swaying my legs on a little wooden bench – comfort food piping hot in mismatched dishes spread across my Nanny’s table.

There’s barely enough room to navigate her tiny galley kitchen. Despite this, she manages to whip up generous helpings of tenderness in a modest space lined with red apple wallpaper. The kitchen is suffused with the heady aroma of decades’ worth of pecan chocolate cakes and fried chicken. Her love is buttermilk biscuits with ‘big butter’ and honey, fried okra, and chicken ‘n dumplings – and the baked mac and cheese she makes especially for me. These are the kinds of meals where seconds are a given – the kind that fills you, belly and soul. That’s the business Chef Ken is in – love on a plate.

Kenneth’ Chef Ken’ James says his affinity for the culinary arts began at home. “My love of food and cooking started as a chunky kid who loved to watch my mom cook.” He reveled in being the first to taste his mom’s home cooking.

A masterclass in multitasking, while sauteing shrimp, stirring grits, and plating orders, Chef Ken continues to tell his story.

Moving on from his early kitchen memories, Chef Ken started cooking independently. “I found real joy in the process and even greater joy watching people eat my food, knowing that I was able to bring a moment of happiness,” he said.

Chef Ken began working at a nonprofit in New York City called the Boys Club of New York. He was a coach for the competitive culinary class, which won three times back-to-back. The coach said he was proud to turn this team of middle school boys who didn’t know how to make toast into interested foodies who could compose a competition-winning dish.

By 2014, he’d found his way into the kitchen full-time, unofficially starting Plates on Deck, making plates of food for coworkers and friends. “After that, it was just love – love, passion, and skill on a plate.”

“It’s a celebration of global cuisine. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what your culture is. If you have passion and you’re looking to evoke an emotion with comfort food from where you’re from – that’s soul food,” Chef Ken said. That’s why they describe their cuisine as ‘eclectic soul food.’ “What better way to bring people together than over a plate?”

He and his wife, Ziomara Taveras, turned Plates on Deck into a catering business in October 2019, working out of their small apartment. Amid the pandemic, they offered seafood boils online. The blended family of eight moved from New York to Florida in 2020.

Now, the family operates a catering business out of a commissary kitchen in Orlando and at Catapult in Lakeland, offering private chef services and popups at the farmer’s market.

Ziomara handles everything behind the scenes, while son David James takes orders and is the business’s ‘unofficial baker. ‘ “He’s my right-hand man,” Chef Ken said of his son. If you’ve ever tasted their pleasantly sweet honey vanilla cornbread, you’ve got David to thank. It’s one of their most popular items — for good reason.

“I’m teaching my kids you follow your dreams, and your gifts will make way for you,” he said, noting that Plates on Deck is bigger than just him. “I want to make sure they all know that if you build something for yourself, and you have a dream and a goal, and you work towards it – it will come to life.” The chef called Plates on Deck a legacy and a “beacon of hope and light to the next generation of culinary entrepreneurs.”

“Our goal is to get our own brick and mortar, ideally in Lakeland or Winter Haven, but we want to be in Polk County,” Ziomara said.

The family hopes to create something they call ‘The Pod’ – a home for their takeout business and catering, a space for pop-up chef’s tables, and to provide culinary training. They are looking to secure funding and hope to launch into a space by the end of the year.

Chef Ken ‘brought us together’ over a dazzling plate of food, both in appearance and flavor. Succulent honey bourbon chicken is the star of the colorful dish, with supporting roles from Black Sheep Farms sauteed collard greens, doublebaked candied yams, and my favorite, the five-cheese mac attack. Nanny would be proud (or maybe jealous).

Another must-try is the shrimp boil with corn, potatoes, and sausage. The shrimp are perfectly prepared and seasoned. They were also to-die-for atop Chef Ken’s creamy grits.

If food is love, Chef Ken and his family have hearts of gold. They have a heart for what they do and who they serve. Love you right back, Plates on Deck.

Plates on Deck

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Photography by Amy Sexson


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