When you think about all of the great African-American chefs in the industry today, you can't help but to think of Chef Joseph Randall. From East to West, North to South, his name is synonymous with Southern cuisine that is as real as it gets. Although I am not a chef and just a lover of food, I am inspired to learn more about his style and technique that has influenced multiple generations of chefs to this day. This September, nine chefs will pay tribute to his passion for the industry and his desire to ensure that those coming up behind him are given the same tools to be just as successful.
At age 64, Chef Randall in my eyes is a culinary historian. He has witnessed the evolution of the industry as well as African-Americans' reluctance and later rediscovered passion for the culinary arts since being introduced to cooking at the age of 14. "This industry wasn't something we chose necessarily in the early days by choice. It was an avenue or doorway that was left open to us. I can remember in the 60s, one of the first things said after the civil rights bill was passed in 1963 and 1964 was 'we don't have to work in your restaurants no more' because it was a clear sign that now that the civil rights legislation had passed, new doors were going to open up."
Whatever those doors were going to be really didn't have an impact on Chef Randall's decision to become a chef. He shares his unique family history of his father who was a doctor and his uncle who was a chef and notes that although their professions were totally different, both were treated with respect and dignity. In addition, unlike many, his uncle didn't experience the family criticism during this time for not being in a profession that they felt was more acceptable. "I can remember teaching at Chaney in the mid-90s and a grandmother came inside said 'I sent my granddaughter to college to be someone, not to be no cook.'"
In fact, it was Chef Randall's uncle that, as he says, gave him a "tease for this industry." He would later go on to do two apprenticeships; one with another great African-American chef Robert W. Lee and the other with an Italian chef named Frank Castelli, both in Pennsylvania. But being from the old school, he notes that these days simply going to culinary school does not make one a chef. It is the experience and putting what one has learned while in school to practice that creates a chef. "One of the things that I have always tried to tell young folks is to go and work for a good chef and that helps to make you a better chef in the future."
When you think about all of the great African-American chefs of our time, Chef Randall has had the pleasure of meeting, working and becoming great friends with just about all of them over the course of his career. Patrick Clark, Edna Lewis, Leon West, Stanley Jackson and Leah Chase are also cornerstones in culinary history and have been proudly placed into the Chef Hall of Fame, which was started by Chef Randall to preserve our rich culinary history.
He has taught all over the country and eventually settled in Savannah, Ga. twelve years ago as the director of food services at the Savannah College of Art and Design for a year and a half prior to opening his school. Chef Joe Randall's Cooking School opened in September 2000 as a recreational cooking school after he noticed an interest in cooking instruction while teaching classes at the Livingood's appliance store. To date, he estimates that he has had over 15,000 guests or foodies come through the school from all over the world including Mrs. Paula Dean herself. At the school, those attending will enjoy a wonderful demonstration by Chef Randall using the freshest ingredients to prepare recipes that are true to Southern-style cuisine. He proudly says "African-American cuisine is pounded in Southern cooking. I don't care who says what, without African-American influence, there wouldn't be any Southern cooking. Our contribution to food in America is much more than just soul food from the standpoint of what they perceive soul food to be."
The timing of the cooking school couldn't have been better as America was witnessing another food awakening, this time on TV. The Food Network was just building its audience and the word "foodie" was really starting to take root. Also, by this time the attitude among African-Americans had experienced a shift and the conversation turned from being a chef is not good enough to what school to attend to be the best chef out there. And for many of these chefs, Chef Randall has been an inspiration and source of encouragement and support.
Starting on September 7, invited chefs from across the country will join Chef Randall for a 10 day celebration in honor of his school. Chef Kevin Mitchell from the Institute of Charleston at Trident Technical College, celebrity chef Marvin Wood from Atlanta, Chef Matthew Raiford from Washington, D.C. and Chef Charlotte Jenkins from South Carolina are just a few of the chefs hosting one of the luncheons and dinners. Tickets for the series are currently on sale and space is limited.
Given his history as a chef, those who have been fortunate to cross paths with Chef Randall personally or professionally can truly see the legacy he is leaving behind. But in his own words, "I just want folks to think that I cared about food and was a good cook and people enjoyed what I did." I know for sure they will certainly say that and a lot more as Chef Joe Randall is truly one of our legendary top chefs.
For more information about the Guest Chef Luncheon and Dinner Series or to register, click here.
To review recipes by Chef Randall, go to the Chef's Corner
Also, Chef Joe Randall's Cooking School is featured in the September issue of Every Day with Rachel Ray magazine so please be sure to pick up a copy.