Caribbean flavors, African-American soul food, and Native American staples like squash, grits, and pit-cooked barbecue all contribute to our idea of Southern cuisine. Louisiana and the South Carolina Lowcountry each have their own seafood-based styles, and the best pulled pork sandwich or fried chicken breast you’ve ever tasted might emerge from the kitchen of a small-town diner on a back road in rural Georgia.
The South’s culinary traditions even have their own Oxford, Mississippi-based advocacy group, the Southern Foodways Alliance (led by esteemed food writer, John T. Edge), whose work underlines the undeniable connection between the region’s history and its food. Southerners interweave food into their identity, whether that’s the pralines Aunt Edna serves after church or a pitmaster who devotes his life to perfecting whole hog barbecue. (This is not a place where “barbecue” has anything to do with grilling burgers in the backyard -- that’s a “cookout.”)
Pride in local ingredients and preparation is another touchstone of Southern culture. Take Sean Brock’s wildly popular Husk, which applies a Southern-ingredients-only philosophy to fine dining, an approach that revolutionized the Charleston restaurant scene when it opened in 2010 by reconsidering what “Southern cooking” could be. Nashville; Greenville, South Carolina; and Savannah, Georgia all now have their own Husk -- as well as dozens of other restaurants influenced by it.
Alex Lira, a James Beard Award-nominated chef who honed his skills at New York’s Craft as well as Diner and Marlow & Daughters in Brooklyn, was so inspired by the Lowcountry’s burgeoning culinary scene during a 2012 visit that he packed up and moved down a few months later. “I got an education in New York, but I also got tired of the rat race,” he explains. “Charleston felt like a mecca in the Southeast, where restaurants were melding different styles of cooking with modern techniques and local ingredients.” Lira launched two restaurants in the city, including the lauded Bar Normandy, and will soon helm the kitchen at tapas spot Estadio’s new Charleston location. He also bought a home and a boat -- a pipe dream in New York -- and spends his free time at the beach and on the water.
His story mimics other big-city chefs who migrate south -- Mashama Bailey left New York to cook progressive Southern fare at The Grey in Savannah, and was recently featured on Netflix’s Chef’s Table. By moving to Atlanta, Damon Wise, another New York alum of Craft, Monkey Bar, and Lafayette, made a huge career jump, now working as a vice president at Ford Fry Restaurants, a group with locations in Nashville and Houston. In other words, the South is well past the point where its best culinary talent has to move away to make it big -- it’s now the destination.