Chef Ayo Cherry, executive chef and owner of Served, believes food should be as fulfilling as it is filling. She wants clients to taste the positivity in her dishes.
For years, Cherry was Lil Wayne’s personal chef. A killer steak got her the job. Since then, she’s moved to Los Angeles, expanded her business, and gone on to cook for DaBaby and Travis Barker among other personal clients and events. How tasty is Cherry’s food? Well, her skills led her from sleeping in her car to flying in a private jet.
The former winner of the Food Network’s Supermarket Stakeout recently recounted her big break in a conversation about her career, as well as her experience with CBD and meals she recommends for High Times readers.
You went to culinary school. I think a lot of us have ideas about what it’s like, but how was your experience?
At the time? It sucks (Laughs). I had no money. The food I made in class was probably everything I was going to eat that day unless I had to work, and I worked at a restaraunt. I went to La Cordon Bleu, which is a traditional French style. You learn the brigade system for the kitchen, so they really take the old-school ways seriously. Everything had to be right. You had to have your full uniform checked prior to coming into class. If you were wrinkled or kind of a mess, you couldn’t come into class. I had a nose ring and it’s like, “Take off your piercings before class.” It was a whole thing every day.
I learned a lot of small skills I took for granted until I got older. I wouldn’t have had the amount of knowledge that I got because I am from a small place. I am from Tallahassee, Florida. There was no one who was going to offer me what my, specifically cuisines across cultures class, offered me. Whereas somebody who grows up in LA, who’s maybe eating out from every culture, I don’t necessarily know that culinary school would be as necessary for that person. For me, I need[ed] to do it.
Congratulations on everything you’ve accomplished with your company, Served. What was your initial vision for the business? Where’d you start off after school?
I had zero vision for my benefit when I started. I would love to be one of those people, like I had these big specific dreams. I didn’t. I was working at a restaurant called Dirt in Miami. I was the senior sous chef and I got promoted to the catering manager, and much like all of us, I overworked and burned out. I was pulling 80, 90 hours a week.
I was in charge of the catering, didn’t have that much staff, and we were the commissary kitchen for the two locations. Sometimes I would go out to my car to sleep for two or three hours and go back to work and keep cooking. If you know North Miami, I shouldn’t have been doing that, but I’ve done it. I had to do it to get the work done, because if there’s nothing at the commissary, then there are two locations now who are behind.
I met a personal trainer who was using the exact same commissary as us, the space. I would see him cooking meals for his clients and I would just be like, “Hey, if you’re doing meal prep and you’re making chicken breasts, you don’t need to cook them for 35 minutes because they’re gonna reheat them and you’re cooking them to death already. You need to cook them until it’s safe for people to eat them.”
Eventually, he said, “If you ever want to do this for me, for my clients, I would love to have you. You can do the work from your house.” I did not have the faith, but I said yes and figured it out from there. I went to other personal trainers and was like, “Hey, I do this for this person, would you be interested in something like that?” I’m just trying to make ends meet at this point because I left my restaurant job and now I’m doing this, but this doesn’t pay as much as my restaurant job.
So how’d it all lead to cooking for Lil Wayne?
One day I was in a group of private chefs and a friend of mine said, “Would you like to cook for Lil Wayne tonight?” Of course. I went [to the gig] and was told, “We have 10 chefs trying out, so this is just a trial, don’t get your hopes up.” I cooked and then they said, “Hey, can you come back the next night?” Cooked again, and then I was asked, “Can you come back the next night?” And then the fourth night I did not get asked to come back. Usually, they tell you around four or five o’clock to be there at six, which is insane.
They would give you an hour, but that night I didn’t get the call and I was like, crap, I didn’t get the job. And then about eight o’clock they were like, “Hey, he didn’t like the other chefs’ food, so can you come right now?” I ran to the house and became Lil Wayne’s private chef. I started making more money than I had ever seen. And then I was like, “Oh, we need an LLC. There needs to be a business. There has to be something.” I had no idea what to do. (Laughs)
How’s it cooking for someone over the span of years? Like, how does your client’s taste change and yours evolve as well?
With Wayne, it’s very different from what I do now. I mean, for someone that high-profile, he had other chefs literally since he was like 19. What my tastes are is completely irrelevant. He doesn’t give a rat’s ass what I want to cook (Laughs). They tell you what he does and does not eat. You must submit a menu and they choose from it. Basically, that was my setup over there.
My claim to fame, so to speak, was my plates are typically very aesthetically pleasing. I cook food for you to actually be full. I very much try to toe the line between very pretty aesthetic, but also you’re gonna be full. I don’t believe the super tiny portion of it, which irks my soul.
(Laughs) Not a fan?
I’m Southern. The idea of charging somebody $300 for a bite of steak is ridiculous to me. But with Wayne, you make what they like, and that’s it. You continuously make what they like. But if you are a chef who values the creative aspect of food, and I’ve met several others, that gets old very fast. I’m not gonna lie, it kind of hurts. Food is like my art form. It is an expressive thing for me.
Yeah. I’m a creator, so I always wanna be pushing what I think is cool, too. I think the misconception with people from my culture specifically is that those pretty plates aren’t delicious and flavorful, and a lot of times, they’re not. But that’s not the case with me. I try to combine those two worlds for them. Constantly repeating yourself sucks after a while and then you kind of find yourself in this place where you’re… I was making more money than I had ever seen. I literally went from being a few payments behind on rent and bills and everything to six figures in four days.
When I was going to culinary school, I was walking 10 miles each way to go to work at Longhorn and now I’m on a private jet going to Australia, and this is like a two-year gap. So it was a big change, and it was very fast. It was hard to reconcile that this food is making me miserable, though. I don’t want to fry any more hot wings. I don’t want to make another well-done steak. I don’t want to.
How’d you make the change?
The change was, I saved up and saved up and I decided I was moving to LA. I had zero clients there. People ask me, “Why LA? “ Cause I want clients who want vegetables, and LA feels like the place.
My current clients are more aligned with who I am artistically. For certain clients, diet is not so restrictive to the point where you can’t enjoy making the food. Now, I’ve had clients who are, you know, these well-known actors, and they eat nothing. They want it to be green but they don’t want you to use olive oil and they don’t want you to use salt. I went from making a well-done steak, and chicken wings to making wilted spinach with nothing else on it.
I was like, okay, this isn’t much better either. It’s just the other side of it. At what point do you get to do the art for the art’s sake? I’m sure you hear people say it all the time, it’s like you’re kind of whoring out your skill to make a living. I wasn’t enjoying it. Now, finally have the balance of doing fun dinners where they’re like, “Oh, what do you wanna make?” And I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m so glad you asked. I have a million ideas.”
That’s great. What’s both your personal and professional experience with cannabis and cannabis-infused food?
I am not a smoker. Not that I find anything wrong with it, I just don’t like the way it feels in my lungs. Like many of us, the very first time I came to visit LA I had a terrible experience with the THC drinks. It was lemonade. The person who split the drink with me, we both drank a third. And this other person was violently projectile vomiting. I could not stand up straight ‘cause I literally felt the ground shaking. Everything around me was spinning. I’m looking around, like everyone knows.
(Laughs) They usually know.
They probably do ‘cause I was trying to keep my balance. Anyway, I got older and I started seeing the effects of CBD. I have anxiety, as we all do, but mine, it’s pretty bad. I started doing the little CBD drinks and saw what everyone was saying.
I do feel calmer, and it’s easier for me to focus a little bit, but I didn’t feel high. That was very important to me because, you know, I need to be focused, but I don’t need to be freaking out because I have to cook. THC freaks me out because when you’re cooking, you’re being judged and I can’t.
My current boyfriend was like, well, “Why don’t you try five milligrams? It’s, like, a glass of wine.” Well, mama loves her wine (Laughs). It became less of a party. Now, that’s how I do it.
I’m still such a baby, like five milligrams is my absolute cap, to still be able to function and feel normal.
And so, once I looked at cannabis like wine, it changed the idea of weed and food for me because I was like, oh, this can still be – pardon the pun – an elevated adult experience. I met a chef in the bay, Solomon [Johnson], who’s a 420 chef and won Chopped 420. He’s about this life and he also does more elevated food. We had a few conversations about it, and then, I got really into food as a way to heal yourself.
I make breakfast, lunch, and dinner for my clients. We’re talking about something that they’re putting in their bodies every day. One of my clients was like, “Hey, I have high cholesterol right now.” And I’m like, “Okay, we’re gonna start doing smoothies and getting these things in your body.” His cholesterol went down drastically, which was great to see.
Now, having clients who have gluten intolerances or autoimmune disease with so many allergies to day-to-day food, it is such a struggle for them that they almost have this weird relationship with eating now because it’s a toss-up if they’re gonna get sick or not. Being able to sit in that place in their lives, it’s nice to say, “Hey, I got you from all angles. We’re gonna make sure this is filling but also fulfilling.”
And so, to think about THC specifically as a part of that, it helped me kind of shift my thinking to be like, okay, this is like a wine pairing. It’s a weed pairing. It’s part of the overall culinary experience for them, and it’s something that adds to the consumption of the food and that is something I can get behind.
Do you find THC goes well with certain dishes or ingredients?
It’s fat. It’s fat-soluble basically, so the fattier a dish is that you eat before it, it makes it a little bit stronger, but it also slows it down. So, if I wanna do an edible after a large meal, maybe I’ll walk it off so I don’t go to sleep full, but also I have this chemical thing happening that’s also bringing me down now, which is really nice. Instead of putting like, I don’t know, wine on top of my large meal (Laughs). You always want to put it in a fattier dish, because it helps it bond in your liver longer. I am not a scientist but I know it’s true. I just can’t explain how (Laughs).
Say for any of our readers who want to cook a nice and easy meal when they’re enjoying some cannabis, do you have any dish recommendations?
Jerk salmon croquettes, which is super easy. If you are on a really tight budget, you can use canned salmon. Growing up, my family used canned salmon or a random piece of salmon around the house. I just like a salmon croquette, ‘cause then you can put salmon, drop one egg in there, or you could also use mayonnaise ‘cause it’s cheaper than eggs right now.
You put a bunch of seasonings, anything you got in your fridge, garlic, onions, any herbs you have, and you throw all of it in the bowl. Maybe a little bit of panko or flour or something, so you can make a little patty. I like to coat mine in panko after that, so it’s nice and crunchy. You don’t have to, though. You can literally do that and you sear it off. If you have that with a salad or have that by itself, that’s such a quick and simple flavorful meal. And if you only have one piece of salmon, it’s a good way to stretch one piece of fish. I made it today with one piece of $10 salmon, which is .6 lbs. I got five of the little croquettes from it, which is enough for two people.
Any go-to desserts or personal favorites you’d recommend?
I am such a simple dessert girl. I love peach cobbler. Buy a can of peaches. I make it the old-school way, where it’s the rough dough with sugar, flour, and cold butter. You squish it together with your hand. You put the peaches in a cast iron skillet, you know, cinnamon nutmeg, you take the flour and the butter and squoosh it into a coarse dough. Throw it in chunks on top and throw the oven at 400 for 20 minutes. Amazing.
What about the peanut butter pie?
Really, it’s my favorite thing. It’s not quick, which is why I didn’t say that, but it’s so good and it’s so simple. It’s so simple and it’s amazing.
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I paused the reading after she said she walked 10 miles to work each way. I just don’t believe anything black girls say anymore. They’re exhausting. I’ll try to be better.
All I can say is she was a beast in the kitchen when I worked with her and unrivaled anyone no matter the crowd for dinner.