A culinary celebration waits in Charlotte. African-American chefs with Southern roots and stellar reputations are coming together on a Saturday and Sunday to prepare biscuits, brisket and other soulful dishes for two pop-up dinners. Todd Richards is packing hot sauce and copies of “Soul: A Chef’s Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipes” for the trip that epitomizes his new cookbook and the philosophy behind it.
“Soul, for me, is an encompassing term that highlights the best of people. It represents a point in time when the world sees us at our best,” says Richards. The best people in the kitchens at the July 21 and 22 events included Erika Council, who provided the recipes for the pie crust and the black pepper-thyme cornmeal biscuits in “Soul.” The other chefs who participated in “Brisket & Biscuits” and “A Celebration of SOUL” share the passion Richards has for African-American contributions to our nation’s culinary past, present and future, beautifully illustrated in his first cookbook. “Having our ingredients being a focal point of the cookbook brings not only a sense of their popularity to it, but it also means that our history and contributions to food in this country are not limited to the 1950s,” says Richards.
The restaurateur and owner of Richards’ Southern Fried in Atlanta organized the chapters in “Soul” by the main ingredients of food his family cooked for everyday dinners and special occasions. Collard greens, onions, berries, lamb, seafood, corn, tomatoes and six other ingredient categories hold special meaning in the chef’s memories of dining at his parents’ home in Chicago or his relatives’ place in Arkansas. No matter who did the cooking, the food had to meet a certain standard. “If they were going to bring something, make sure that it was delicious because we did not stomach terrible food,” says Richards. “And that’s what made it a truly soulful experience. It was a collection of people who were all there to serve the common purpose of celebrating each other.”
The two-time James Beard Award semifinalist and former executive chef of White Oak Kitchen & Cocktails in Atlanta begins each chapter of his new cookbook with mostly traditional family recipes, such as his grandmother’s collard greens with smoked ham hocks. Just as his soul journey progressed through the years that he watched cooking shows and cooked with Mary Wilson, other recipes in “Soul” move readers forward to more modern uses of ingredients. “I wanted to present soul and modern concepts, and what the next generation of soul food can look like to inspire the next generation of cooks,” says Richards.
In the introduction of “Soul,” the self-taught chef describes food as a religion and those who master the art form of cooking as “preachers of cuisine.” He preaches reverence for the recipes and techniques he learned from his parents, grandparents and other relatives, as well as respect for the modern approaches he added to his repertoire cooking in restaurants and exploring the foods of other cultures. “I look at the family aspects of a lot of the cuisines that I have pulled in. The techniques are pretty much the same. What I am attempting to say is that we are more similar than we are different,” says Richards.
The idea for the collard green ramen recipe came from a combination of experiences; his mother’s love of Asian noodle dishes and his father’s insistence that leftovers be put on the table with whatever was being served. The techniques for making collard green broth and ramen broth are very similar. Richards brings together ingredients and techniques that raise the level of respect for soulful cooking, whether the origin is Southern or from another culture. His recipes are especially relevant for younger generations who have more exposure to different cuisines. “I wanted to give them a pathway to encompass the other foodways they see and utilize them in traditional dishes,” says Richards. “They can make their own version of soul food and cook more at home with their friends and family.”
Richards advises other cooks who want to prepare soulful dishes to know the source of their ingredients, the people they will put time and energy into serving and how not to be afraid of trying something new. “I think you have to be kind of fearless in the kitchen, knowing that mistakes are only pathways to making a dish even better the next time.”
The willingness to explore ideas with other chefs is also part of that fearlessness. The foreword in “Soul” is written by a chef who has cooked and conversed with Richards for more than a decade. Richards and Sean Brock share the belief that delicious food brings people together. Brock writes that looking at the cookbook made him want to “hop in the car and go see Todd just to talk food and catch up.”
Other readers may think of soul food the same way Brock does after seeing all the gorgeous photos of dishes and heart-warming family photos in the cookbook. He describes it as a “feeling that covers you like a grandmother’s quilt.” Richards’ “sermon about Soul food” is generating the kind of praise most chefs find as comforting as a grandmother’s hug. “What pleases me most about the reception is that I feel Soul and soul food have a modern place that everyone is enjoying and looking forward to cooking,” says Richards.
The cookbook he calls a tribute to his family and ancestors breaks through stereotypes about the traditional foods pioneered by African-Americans. “Soul” gives readers a complete manuscript for preparing delectable dishes served in an atmosphere that fosters congeniality and conversation. There are suggestions for side dishes and drinks listed with each recipe. Some chapters also feature sample menus and recommendations from the music playlist at the end of the book.
For Richards, “Soul” represents the joy that cooking for others gave his family and that he has gotten from practicing his “religion” in celebrated kitchens, in his restaurant and at home. He says it best in the introduction: “This book is a testament to what I’ve discovered on my journey and in my practice as a chef. Creating and sharing are both spiritual acts.”