Navy chief brings soul food to Bahrain as after hours chef
By JOSHUA KARSTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 16, 2019
MANAMA, Bahrain — Word of mouth on where in Bahrain to find soul food, American comfort food or simply a meal with a smile may just direct you to Chief Petty Officer Markeeta Hardin.
No, she is not a Navy cook and this isn’t a military “Top Chef” winner story. Hardin is a master-at-arms — the Navy’s version of a police officer — and has been a sailor for 19 years.
But while she wears anchors by day, she likes to cook in her free time, catering private events, teaching cooking classes and, most recently, putting on two successful Friday brunches at a well-known restaurant in Manama.
Locals said “it would be the first soul food brunch in the kingdom,” recalled Hardin, who also goes by “Chef Keeta.”
Collard greens, Cajun gumbo, pork ribs, mac and cheese, fried chicken and homemade banana pudding are on the menu in Chef Keeta’s kitchen, wherever that kitchen may be, whether at home, at sea or Manama’s Adliya area, which is popular for its nightlife and upscale restaurants.
Around base, posters and banners advertise her cooking classes, sailors share images of her food on social media and commands ask her to prepare holiday meals.
“I saw the MWR sign and thought it would be a good experience,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Romy Estrella, who attended one of Chef Keeta’s cooking classes on base. “She’s making the class really fun and teaching us some good strategies on how to cook.”
But word of her popularity has also trickled into the local Manama food scene, where articles and advertisements have appeared in magazines and attracted the attention of restaurateurs in the area.
“I was asked if I could make it happen, could I bring it alive ... soul food in Bahrain?” Hardin said of her conversations with aficionados from the local foodie scene. “I don’t want to be known for only being able to cook soul food, but if I’m in the kingdom, it’s going to be soul food because it’s unique to them.”
Hardin told the Bahraini entertainment magazine Habibti Magazine last month that she also enjoys cooking Italian, Lebanese and Spanish cuisine.
Her job in law enforcement stems from her childhood passion of helping people and her need for discipline, a character trait that easily translates to the kitchen, she said. Her cooking skills also trace back to her childhood growing up in Tennessee, when she made meals for her two sisters while their single mother was busy working two or three jobs.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Keely Brown, a native of Alabama, said the food was “just like how my mama would make it” at the two brunches she attended.
“Being from the south, the best times were always centered around soul food, friends, and family,” Brown said. “Having spent three years overseas without soul food, these brunches were like Christmas to me.”
In addition to bringing southern cooking to the island, Hardin also brought southern hospitality.
“The whole restaurant was filled with friends and people I’ve come to consider family over the past year here in Bahrain,” Brown said. “Chef Keeta comes out of the kitchen, hugs everyone, and goes right back to cooking. She makes everyone feel welcome.”
As a single mother herself, Hardin credits her culinary success to her son Omar, her main taste-tester who tagged along with her as she traveled the world sampling new cuisines throughout her Navy career.
Hardin enlisted in 2000 as an undesignated seaman. She would help prepare Sunday meals aboard her first ship, the USS Cormorant, which had a crew just shy of 60 sailors.
“Cooking Sunday dinner on the ship, for me, was being at home,” she said.
Her meals became so popular that the ship’s supply officer requested her inputs for underway supplies.
After working her way into a security job, she was able to lead community service events, often those that involved feeding the needy.
“Our job as law enforcement is not just apprehending somebody ... but you’re also there to take care of people,” she said. “Anywhere I am, one of the first things I seek out, is where can I help.”
A few years ago, while serving as a detailer in Millington, Tenn., in 2013, Hardin spent her evenings attending the L’Ecole Culinary Institute. She apprenticed six days a week for over a year to earn a degree in culinary arts.
“Being a chief and a chef at the same time allows me to be that nurturing mother that sometimes you need,” she said.
Brown, who works for Hardin, said the chief-turned-chef expects excellence from her sailors and helps bolster their confidence.
“I look up to her a great deal as a chief and as a woman in the military,” Brown said.
Hardin plans to finish her Navy service and open an international restaurant in her home state, but she may stay in Bahrain as the sole soul food queen.
“I’ve had some offers,” she said. “I love it here, they embrace me.”