Chef and caterer Louis Pickens, in his Spring Street kitchen, is also a member of Portland's Racial Equity Steering Committee. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)
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It’s a blink-and-you-miss-it kind of set up Louis Pickens has on Spring Street in Portland.

To those passing by, it’s just another in a line of clapboard West End houses, not far from the Arts District.

But to chef and caterer Pickens, it’s a place that can create a sense of unity.

“The community has really come to my aid to make sure I stay afloat,” Pickens said in his kitchen space at 122 Spring St., which is owned by Mike and Amanda Petrozzini who operate as Double House Arts. “I was raised if you want to live you have to give. And I have given; now there’s a reciprocation.”

His space is a mixture of bright whites on the walls, industrial stainless steel appliances, and rustic tables. As Pickens sits at one of the long tables, he remarks about a set of crayons sitting on the table as well, an indication the space is for more than just cooking. 

Originally from California, Pickens spent his formative years as a chef and caterer in Dallas, Texas. He believes food, like art, is something that can be an instrument of good in society.

“It’s such a powerful tool for good,” Pickens said in his commanding voice. “If you sit down with someone (you disagree with) you can come together in the experience of flavors, substance, the euphoria food gives you. It’s soothing, and it can break down barriers.”

Pickens, tall and dressed in a colorful smock that contrasts with a bright white shirt, sat down with a reporter last week and outlined his strong desire to foster and give back to the Portland community. Even a question of where he was from became a discussion of trying to create a better world.

“I just want to give,” he said, occasional hints of a southern accent slipping through. “I’m a love warrior. I want to be all I can be in service of others. I want to create an environment of love and community. I want it to be a reflection of this community.”

In Portland, Pickens cooked in hotel and nursing home kitchens before starting his own company, Black Betty’s Bistro, named after the cast-iron stove his grandmother had back in Texas, where Pickens said generations of his family learned to love food.

After the coronavirus pandemic threw a wrench into his plans to open a storefront in the space next door, he said he’s been grateful that the community has kept him afloat. He’s cooking family-sized meals to go for pickup on Thursdays and Saturdays, and has catered for a school in South Portland.

“That’s something I’m really proud of, to have a connection with those kids,” he said. “I can provide a sense of consistency and love through the food, and be a constant presence in their lives.”

Pickens has also been catering Friday night community events for Portland Community Squash.

All that has kept him going, he said, and now he’s just as busy ever.

“When all this first hit, I was puzzled, I was flat, I was downtrodden,” he said of the pandemic, slightly shaking his head. “But people called, I got back into the flow. It’s what I love to do, it’s what I always think about.”

He said while times have been tough for everyone, he’s remained grateful to be open. He praised people’s willingness to try things they otherwise wouldn’t have, such as curbside pickup of meals.

“By some kind of grace it’s been OK,” he said.

Pickens said he also feels privileged to have recently been appointed to the city’s Racial Equity Steering Committee, calling the panel’s work a “crucial discussion.” He said he’s a supporter of police, and used to cater events for a police academy in Texas.

But he said it was there he could see how people changed, how the recruits who came in became different people by the time they left, and how their perceptions of the world changed.

“Part of the problem we’re faced with today has to do with (police) training,” Pickens said.

He said while Portland is a great city, he said many people he meets see racism “as a magical theme no one knows exists unless they are a person of color.”

“This discussion is important,” Pickens said. “And I’ll do all I can to add perspective.”

Making Portland Work is an occasional series about people who do their jobs, day in and day out, in good times and bad. They’re the unsung heroes we see and depend on every day. We’ve asked our reporters to find them and tell their stories. Do you know someone we should include? Let us know at [email protected].

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