The Rise of Southern Cuisine

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Copyright Grant Kessler
written and compiled by Matt Kirouac
Southern food is hotter than a pepper sprout right now. Behind this great American cuisine is an underlying theme of family and heritage, which chefs such as Perry Hendrix seek to preserve in their own ways. As Mike Lata (FIG, Charleston) notes, the South has been enjoying a renaissance for a few years, and as the region continues to flourish, he believes land owners, investors, and entrepreneurs are realizing the potential for opportunity.

Perry Hendrix puts his own stamp on Southern cuisine

Roasted chicken with buttermilk gnocchi, cauliflower, kale and pomegranate is an example of Perry Hendrix's modern interpretations of Southern cuisine

Thanks to inspired chefs cooking from their hearts and memories, Southern food has transcended geographic boundaries to become a national staple.

Memories and traditions are the main motivating factors behind Perry Hendrix‘s Southern-tinged contemporary American cuisine at Custom House Tavern (Chicago). Having lived and worked in the South for almost half his life, the regional influences are undeniable in Hendrix’s food. He believes Southern food is America’s cuisine, and right up there with baseball and jazz, it’s something that is innately ours. The emotional and traditional factors connected with Hendrix’s Southern roots are what drives his “simple, seasonal and satisfying” dishes.

Memories are often a launching pad for Hendrix’s new dishes. Memories of comforting grandma cooking are what inspires dishes such as pan-roasted whitefish and short rib pot roast, which he added to Custom House Tavern’s menu this past winter. Though grandma’s ambrosia salad thankfully didn’t include whitefish, Hendrix was able to adapt the flavors of her ambrosia salad into his fish dish. Braising endive in fresh orange juice and tarragon recalls the orange element of her ambrosia, while the parsnip-coconut milk-vanilla-lemon puree echoes sweet flavors of marshmallow and shredded coconut. The fish is topped with a fresh grapefruit-pecan salsa, another nod to ambrosia citrus and nuts. Grandma would be proud.

Southern food is not a relic or stagnant cuisine. It evolves from its ingredients at its heart into something far more reaching than Paula Deen can ever imagine because it’s influenced by its people.

~ Perry Hendrix, Custom House Tavern, Chicago

While much of the cooking Hendrix does at Custom House Tavern is Southern-inspired, it’s important to him that the influences and traditions are there on the plate without beating guests over the head with a bag of grits. “There is a thread of Southern in almost (all) of the dishes at Custom House Tavern,” he explains. “It’s subtle, and you might now know it’s there — because most of you don’t know what Southern food really is.”

One prime example of an unconventional Southern dish is Hendrix’s roasted chicken with buttermilk gnocchi, cauliflower, kale and pomegranate. The main inspiration for the roast chicken dish came from buttermilk and molasses, two essential ingredients found in any Southerner’s larder. The buttermilk is made into buttermilk ricotta and formed into gnocchi, while the molasses appears in the form of pomegranate molasses, used to glaze the chicken. Essentially, this dish is an example of the evolution of Southern cuisine. Hendrix explains that Southern food is ever-evolving, as it’s influenced by its people — immigrants and emigrants, such as Hendrix, who made his migration north to Chicago and brought with him some of the techniques, traditions and soul of the region.

More chefs champion Southern cuisine in their own ways

Big Jones preserves Southern heritage via historic dishes such as red beans and rice, ca. 1885

The Southern (Chicago) perfectly grasps the sense of Southern comfort and soul. Largely inspired by executive chef Cary Taylor’s Georgia upbringing, the bar concentrates not on appeasing Midwestern diners with modern takes on Southern food, but by hitting closer to home with authentic recipes and focusing on the simplicity of the old Southern cuisine Taylor grew up with.

The Southern also embraces the concept of family, an important factor in Southern cuisine. Family-style shared meals are a big part of the food at The Southern, especially the fried chicken dinners. In fact, fried chicken has long been one of the most important foods to Taylor, who says his earliest food memories involve fried chicken and chicken fingers. Some of Taylor’s other soulful creations include hush puppies and fried green tomatoes.

One thing Paul Fehribach, executive chef/owner of Big Jones (Chicago) wishes Americans knew about food is their food heritage. Specifically, their regional heritage and its importance in eating. “As the greatest cultural melting pot in the world, our nation has brought together so many nations and ethnic foodways that our history is very nearly the history of global cooking,” says Fehribach, who feels that American food was once, and could be again, the most regionally diverse and interesting cuisine in the world. And he truly believes that the South is already there.

Plain and simple, Southern food is the most soulful food we can call our own here in the States.

~ Hugh Amano, Food on the Dole, Chicago

One way Fehribach preserves Southern heritage is by dating many of his dishes, such as red beans and rice, ca. 1885“Eugene’s Breakfast in Mobile,” ca. 1930 and his boarding house lunch, inspired by the traditional Southern lunches of yore. In doing this, he is able to re-create the sorts of foods and cooking techniques utilized throughout the South at different times in history, and by presenting it for diners today, he is able to keep those traditions alive.

Fehribach feels that crop diversity is another fundamental base of our heritage as human beings, something that is deeply entrenched in Southern cuisine, from Sea Island benne to Carolina gold rice. Both of these are regularly featured at Big Jones, along with items like Sea Island red peas, sourwood honey, popcorn rice, red fife and Carolina gourdseed white corn. Examples of the myriad ways Fehribach uses these ingredients include Sea Island benne brittle, sourwood honey cake and antebellum red fife risotto.

One of the things Jared Van Camp (Nellcôte and Old Town Social, Chicago) enjoys most about Southern cooking is the tradition behind it. Comparable to European cuisines, where food goes back hundreds of years, Van Camp believes Southern cuisine is one of the only region-specific styles of cooking in America that holds a deep-rooted history.

Southern food has always been a part of life for Greg Biggers‘ (Cafe des Architectes, Chicago), who was born and raised in Alabama. Some of the best meals he’s ever had involved fried chicken, pit-roasted BBQ or a Lowcountry boil. Although he isn’’t a “Southern chef” today, Biggers does utilize some of those flavors on his menu, such as pork tenderloin with jalapeño jelly, wild boar sausage, lardo “brûlée” and pickled ramps, a dish inspired by elements he remembers from dining in Charleston, South Carolina.

Hugh Amano (Food on the Dole, Chicago) calls Southern food the most soulful cuisine in America, and one that hits on all the big dining movements of late, from whole-animal cookery to pork popularity. He explains that the difference between the roots of Southern cuisine and its current national prominence is that today, many Southern food-eaters lead lethargic lifestyles and don’t burn off the “durned good” food they eat.

HB Home Bistro‘s chef de cuisine, David Cooper, believes there are several factors that have led to Southern cooking’s popularity. More and more chefs from the South are bringing their food culture with them as they spread across the country; more chefs from the North traveling to the South; national recognition of the South as a region rich in resources and history; and a growing access to food resources and artisans.

Melissa Trimmer‘s (Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, Chicago) favorite thing about Southern cuisine is the ample use of fats. And though she does not have any Southern items on her menu, the most popular family meal among the faculty and students is biscuits and gravy, which she calls “delicious, filling, and distinctly Southern.”

While Southern-inspired chefs all put their own variations on the diverse cuisine, at its root is a common bond of family tradition, food heritage and regional crops. The personal ways that chefs make it their own is what makes Southern food a truly American cuisine.


You may also be interested in

  • Recently, trendspotters from the likes of Food Product Design and NY Daily News have noted that Southern food is among the hottest dining trends in the country, predicting it will only get hotter.
  • For coverage and updates on all things Southern, it doesn’t get any better than Deep South Magazine. They’ve also published their “Where to Eat in the South in 2012” guide, in case you’ll be eating your way through the region.
  • On Huffington Post, Chantal Martineau asks, “Will the soul food bubble burst?”
  • More chefs have made news by going casual and opening Southern-inspired restaurants. Notable examples include Red Rooster Harlem in New York City, Screen Door in Portland, Oregon and farmerbrown in San Francisco.


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