Celebrity chef, television personality, best-selling author and former adult literacy student Curtis Aikens did not learn to read until he was 26 years old. His journey and words for the road ahead were front row center when he delivered the keynote address at the 23rd annual Leaders for Literacy Luncheon, Oct. 14 at the Omni William Penn Hotel. The event supported the students and learning programs of the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council, the largest adult literacy organization in Pennsylvania.

Aikens has been with the Food Network since its inception, but before his media acclaim, he succeeded as an entrepreneur who hid his illiteracy. He never felt good about his business accomplishments because he never learned to read.

IN THE KITCHEN —Chef Curtis Aikens prepares a full course meal at Gaynor’s School of Cooking. (Photos by Ashley G. Woodson)

“Gaynor’s School of Cooking, located at 309 East Carson St. on the South Side, was generous enough to host a master cooking class by Aikens for many of our volunteers who tutor people in regards to literacy,” said Greg Mims of GPLC.

“Every year we have a trivia bowl and it’s a fundraiser event where people answer questions and win prizes. As a part of the trivia bowl, we have a silent auction. One of the prizes auctioned off this year was a master cooking class featuring Chef Aikens.”

Aikens got ahead, he says, “because I was a superb listener; I could recall and repeat everything said in the classroom.” When forced to take a test he would write so illegibly that teachers would have to ask him to explain what he wrote. Good on his feet, he verbally reeled off the answers. It was a strategy that saw him through high school and even into college at Southern University.

“When the food network started out years ago, Aikens was one of the first chefs to work on the network. The Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council always says that people who have a literacy issue are not stupid because they have to find other ways to cope in the world without reading or writing skills. Curtis was moved to learn how to read at the age of twenty-six and now he is a college graduate,” said Mims.

Those attributes polished with good-natured charm and unaffected charisma helped Curtis land featured spots on Good Morning America, Oprah, and Entertainment Tonight. He’s also cooked for the Dalai Lama. NBC Nightly News covered his remarkable struggle with illiteracy and his devotion to helping adults with the same issue. And, as an author of five popular books, Aikens keeps the fire for literacy burning among delicious down-home cooking ideas.

“We emphasize the word “literacy” because sometimes it’s misprinted in media as “literary”. He has a passion for our cause. He is encouraging people to come forward and get help the same way that he did. This is very personal for him and he wants others to know about it,” said Don Brock, executive director of the GPLC.

In recognition of his struggles and successes, the theme for this year’s event was “Literacy: Recipe for a Successful Life.” The luncheon is the major annual fundraising event for the Literacy Council. Previous keynote speakers have included actors Henry Winkler, Danny Glover, and LeVar Burton; CBS National Correspondent Byron Pitts; Pittsburgh Post Gazette Editor David Shribman; Parade Magazine Publisher Walter Anderson; Neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson; and best selling author David Baldacci.

“I got into the business of food with the Food Network and ABC and writing books to promote reading. The Literacy Council in Northern California taught me how to read. When the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council asked me to come to do this event, I was all for it,” said Aikens.

He said he was happy to come in a night early and cook, promote reading and do whatever he can do to promote the cause because there are a lot of African-American men and women who struggle with literacy and we all need to learn how to read.

“It’s not just a Black and White thing because people in general need to learn how to read. We can teach each to learn how to read. Black, White, Latino and everyone needs to learn how to read and I want to lead the cause. The last few years, I backed off just a little because I went back to school and receive my college degrees. I want to be a Black man teaching because there aren’t too many of us teaching,” added Aikens.

Knowing that he was one of the Black chefs on network television gave Aikens a lot of pride, but he says nowadays a lot of people don’t even know he was there. He was also the first African-American male to have a contract with ABC TV back in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.

“The people in power promote what they want to promote but it’s up to other African-Americans in media to tell our own story so no one forgets about our history. We can’t forget about the African-American chefs that came before me either. I knew that I had this gift from God, but I also knew that if I was going to be head and shoulders above the rest that I needed to learn how to read,” Aiken said.

Chef Kevin McGuire and wife Melissa agree that it was an honor to be there with Aikens and said the job that he is doing with the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council is phenomenal. “Having Curtis Aikens here was incredible because it gave people the chance to learn more about reading and cooking at the same time. We wanted everyone to have fun and learn more about the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council as well. We need tutors and volunteers,” said Laurie Como, program director of the GPLC in East Liberty. She also said that one of the students attending the class, signed up to become a tutor.

“It’s very cool that Aikens was here with us because he was involved with the Food Network when it started,” said Gaynor Grant of Gaynor’s School of Cooking. “The idea was that the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council auctioned off a class and arranged for Curtis Aikens to come and do it. They were looking for a location to host the event, called us and we were excited about doing it.”

The class prepared a full meal consisting of a roasted hen with a maple glaze, side dishes of yellow squash and zucchini and pasta with tomato and shiitake mushroom sauce. For dessert they made beggar’s purse with peaches and cream.

David Porgess, CEO, EQT was the luncheon’s honorary chairperson. UPMC Health Plan, Education Management Corporation, Cohen & Grigsby, U.S. Steel, Fairmont Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh, BNY Mellon, Citizens Bank, Mercer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Bayer Material Science LLC, First Niagara and Cleveland Brothers provided additional major support.

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