How African-American Chefs Embrace Soul Food as Fine Dining

Angie Mosier
Angie Mosier

I wrote something about soul food becoming financially fancy a couple years ago, after an experience at a popular “southern” restaurant in the Atlanta area that cost much more than what seemed reasonable. Since that story, much has stayed the same, but there have certainly been changes in Atlanta’s soul food dining scene that can only be seen positively. Chefs who truly know soul food are being recognized for their commitments to the cultural importance of the food, and for finding inventive ways to represent and reimagine the recipes so many Americans know and love.

Their work has not gone unrewarded. Soul food just keeps getting hotter, and not just because of the additional dashes of pepper vinegar or Tabasco sauce that are so often applied to it (although those are always welcome). The traditionally southern style of cooking, and its African-American roots, are enjoying a sustained popularity boom, thanks in part to soul food chefs who elevate the food into a higher class of culinary art.

Atlanta has always been a city with deep soul food history, but its landscape has changed of late with a revival of the cuisine’s true nature and a forward-thinking outlook towards its future -- both thanks to a few key players. Some, like Busy Bee Cafe owner Tracy Gates, have veteran-status after spending three decades in the city’s restaurant business. Others, like Bryan Furman of B’s Cracklin’ BBQ, have arrived more recently but made a big, saucy splash on the city’s dining scene. As it is, soul food is becoming increasingly freed from any singular definition.

This change is not exclusive to the south -- all across America, more and more cities have learned you don’t have to be in the region to enjoy its famously satisfying food. Legit soul food can be found everywhere from Peaches HotHouse in Brooklyn to Feed in Chicago to Chef Eduardo Jordan’s Junebaby -- which educates as it feeds with an online encyclopedia of each ingredient’s historical relevance and role in the menu. As long as chefs push the limits of soul food with talent while simultaneously honoring its heritage by staying true to recipe roots, change will be positive. That’s where we are today in Atlanta: on the path to propriety, and returning the keys to the kitchen back to the rightful proprietors.

This is what Chef Deborah VanTrece means by the name of her beloved restaurant, Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours. Having opened her first restaurant, Edible Art, in East Atlanta in 1998, she’s more than familiar with how soul food has gained popularity decades later. “It’s full-circle now to see, all of a sudden after 20 years, we are in fashion. I read something a week or so ago, kind of comedic writing, stating the difference between soul food and ‘southern.’ It said southern comes with recipes and it’s measured out; whereas soul food we’re talking putting a little bit of this in there, and some of that. That’s exactly what it is, because it comes from within. It comes from sustainability. It comes from us taking nothing and making something out of it, and it tasting good.” The ownership of culinary creativity should always go to the creators.

Like VanTrece, chef Todd Richards is keen on keeping ownership over the culinary creativity at the core of soul food’s appeal. Richards loves soul food, and knows a whole lot about it, yet his repertoire goes much further than fried chicken. The self-taught, Chicago-bred chef’s dues were paid at some of Atlanta’s most consistently lauded restaurants, from The Ritz-Carlton Buckhead to The Shed at Glenwood and beyond. As a consulting chef, Richards has also been instrumental to the success of One Flew South and Ludacris’ Chicken + Beer, two of the best restaurants in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, currently the busiest airport in the world. He’s now the owner of Richards’ Southern Fried, a restaurant counter inside Atlanta’s popular Krog Street Market food hall serving hot chicken, fried catfish, and more. He also just released his debut cookbook, Soul: A Chef’s Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipes, which he calls “my homage to the cuisine of my family and ancestors,” while referring to the content of the book as “my sermon about my soul food.”

Shelby Light

Between imaginative creations based on classics (such as strawberry barbecue turkey wings, and country-fried, hot-chicken-style lamb steak), Richards’ book shares how his midwest upbringing and southern roots inspired a career in fine dining, which turned him into a master of the food he grew up eating and learning to prepare. It’s familiar to all, while also exemplary of Richard’s business sense and ability to splice his understanding of classic fine-dining techniques with the integrity of soul food dining staples. And it’s delicious.

These culinary developments don’t forsake the past by any measure. If anything, they give it the role it’s owed in the present. VanTrece recently prepared an extravagant cocktail-paired dinner at the James Beard House, with chef/author Jennifer Hill Booker and star Atlanta bartender Tiffanie Barriere. The event, titled “Cast Iron Chronicles,” was the finale of a three-part collaborative dinner series that began in Atlanta, put together for the purpose of  “debunking the myths of soul food, racial inequality, and gender representation in the industry.” The goal: conversations around forgotten people of color and their hidden stories; challenges faced by women, African-Americans, and others who identify as minorities in the industry; and the road that led to today’s standards of success.

The three exceptionally talented African-American ladies worked together to present a menu that included starters like chitterling sausage with apple slaw, cornbread brioche, and hot pepper gastrique; and main dishes such as oxtail rillettes with foie gras mousse, pickled Vidalia onions, muscadine gelée, and truffle toast points. And Barriere complemented each dish with visionary cocktails like the “Green Eyed Bandit”: Bristow gin, mixed with collard green juice, green apple, lemon, quick pickles, and kumquat marmalade. It quickly sold out, with people still trying to get tickets at the door on the day of the event.

“For all of us, we’re really big on the diversity,” VanTrece said. “We want all people to experience what we do, because it’s worthy of that. It was just a good feeling to accomplish that as a team. And we nailed it. Everyone had a great time.”

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Diversity’s a good guidepost in the complex politics of food and identity. Of course black people aren’t the only ones allowed to make soul food (we certainly aren’t the only ones who enjoying making and eating it), but credit should be given where it’s due, otherwise we risk kitchen gentrification by culinary colonizers. The continued lack of African-American chefs and owners in other culinary styles can make it feel limiting and cliche to see something as positive as a black chef with her or his own soul food restaurant. But such identity politics can be as uplifting as they are anchoring, and there are plenty chefs using soul food as a platform to create something new. And anyway, soul food is supposed to make you feel good, but it’s hard to feel good when you’re spending Michelin prices for something your grandmother made, simply using what was available.

One African-American chef challenging soul food standards is Scotley Innis, a New York native with Caribbean heritage, whose prior experience includes working as a sous chef at the venerable Atlanta chain South City Kitchen, and five years as executive chef of restaurant-slash-gaming den Ormsby’s. Innis is now the executive chef of 5Church, a restaurant chain that started in Charlotte, NC, and arrived in Midtown Atlanta in 2016. After the restaurant initially received mixed reviews in the months following its grand opening, Innis was brought aboard for “the modern edge that his cuisine has to offer,” owner Ayman Kamel said at the time.

Innis’ impact has been undeniable, reinvigorating the restaurant’s standing with Atlanta diners. Now considered one of the city’s star chefs, he’s incorporating what he calls “Caribbean comfort soul food” into brilliant rotating dishes, such as Jamaican jerk duck breast with black jollof rice, escovitch fish (as a recurring special for his daily chef’s choice whole fish), and oxtail ramen, which shows up frequently during 5Church’s weekly “Ramen Mondays.”

5Church Atlanta

Innis sees soul food in many forms. “Soul food is ‘More Life,’ in my Jamaican voice,” he jokes, “meaning it nourishes your mind, body, and soul. It reminds me of comfort, family get-togethers and long-lasting memories.” He also says it can be both non-fine dining and fine dining. “Your traditional soul food restaurants usually serve large plates of food, [and] you’re probably going to take a nap afterwards. Fine dining soul food is smaller plates and more refined dishes but the same ingredients, which bring back memories of good times and fulfill your soul after every bite, course after course.”

Thanks to the amazing work of these and other African-American chefs, who remain true to soul food but are unafraid to push it into new territories, we are seeing a change in Atlanta that feels authentic, timely, and important to the greater American culinary story, and we can all experience this in real time, through past and future flavors. It’s a great reminder of where we’ve come, and where we can all go together.

Lest we forget, there was a time when black chefs were either relegated to soul food or ran from it, admitting to feeling pressured to avoid stereotypes and prove their culinary bona fides. But as we’ve seen with VanTrece, Richards, Innis, and others, there’s a new school of thought that is now breaking free of the creative chains. These chefs are no longer willing to hide from the food heritage they can naturally claim by birthright. So they’re coming back home to southern soul food, and here in Atlanta, some of the city’s brightest culinary talents are unapologetically reclaiming their time and rewriting history’s recipe books, with their taste buds trained on tomorrow’s menu.

Mike Jordan is an associate editor at Cox Media Group’s Southern Kitchen, was Thrillist’s founding Atlanta editor, and makes incredible seafood gumbo. Follow him on Twitter.