Nora Tatum was in charge of making sure that dozens of local dental offices were fully staffed, running smoothly, and turning a profit before COVID-19. But when the pandemic caused the practices that she’d overseen for the past two decades to shutter or significantly reduce operating hours overnight, she made an unlikely move: dental consultant to restaurateur. Now, Tatum is the owner and chef of In The Kitchen, a destination for Southern cooking and hospitality in Long Beach.
With more time on her hands after years of jam-packed schedules and extensive travel around Southern California and across state lines, Tatum spent the early months of lockdown where many of us did — in her kitchen. Using recipes that she learned from her Dallas-native mother Eva Tatum and her aunt Ruby Rowlett, Tatum started cooking the kind of Southern food she grew up on, both to keep herself busy and to nourish those around her. Though Tatum — who moved to South Central Los Angeles when she was five years old and attended Crenshaw High School — initially fed just family and close friends, word spread through her downtown Long Beach apartment complex. Soon, neighbors were knocking on the door for a taste of her expert home cooking.
The encouraging feedback, along with support from her two entrepreneurial-minded daughters (her eldest, Tanai Holder, owns wellness spa Salt Lounge, while her youngest, Mya Pearson, is launching a personal training business), gave Tatum the confidence to push her pandemic pastime to the next level. Tapping into personal savings along with a career’s worth of business know-how, Tatum opened In The Kitchen in February in the former Crazy Creole Cafe space on Long Beach Boulevard. “I’m just cooking from my heart,” says Tatum. “It’s just home cooking — everything is made with my hands. And I’m just very happy to do so for others.”
Though In The Kitchen’s sun-washed dining room is currently closed due to the pandemic, a steady stream of locals are coming in for takeout lunches of fried catfish and fried chicken, while the dinnertime crowd digs into Southern classics like slow-cooked oxtails, smothered chicken or pork chops, and a slew of sides including candied yams, black-eyed peas, rice, and more. In The Kitchen’s opening menu is stacked with Tatum’s family’s favorites — the dishes that get constantly requested, and boast her signature touch. Chef Stephanie Johnson of local dessert purveyor Sweet Blessings makes the banana pudding and peach cobbler that are available all day.
While it’s hard for Tatum to play favorites when it comes to her menu, with its deeply personal influences, she is particularly fond of the oxtails. “You really have to take your time and you really have to allow those oxtails to simmer and do what they need to do in order for them to be tender,” she says. She’s also smitten with the “chik n mac,” a riff on her mother’s chicken noodle casserole. The version served here includes a hearty helping of macaroni baked in a cheddar cream sauce with vegetables and tender thigh meat. The menu will likely evolve over time as Tatum takes note of what sells well, and which dishes are requested from her directly. Future menu additions may include meatloaf, baked chicken, and turkey legs, she says.
Throughout her career, which included years in education prior to dental consultancy, Tatum made it a priority to uplift others by offering career training and employment opportunities. She is continuing her commitment at In The Kitchen by partnering with the Pacific Gateway program to offer on-the-job training to locals. At the end of service each evening, she prepares plates of food and personally delivers them to unhoused Long Beach residents.
Whether it’s taking a leap of faith and launching a new business during an uncertain time or looking out for those less fortunate within her community, Tatum hopes to inspire others through her actions. “Being an African-American woman, it is sad [knowing] so many of us think that we can’t do it or we have to have a certain something to accomplish our goals,” says Tatum. “Putting those funds together and making [the restaurant] happen, it was something very difficult, but I want others to know that they can do it — you don’t have to go to school to be a chef, you don’t have to have certain things and feel that without it you can’t do or move forward.”
In The Kitchen is open noon to 8 p.m. for takeout and delivery from Wednesday through Sunday.