We Need More Black Southern Chefs in the Spotlight

We Need More Black Southern Chefs in the Spotlight

Yesterday I Googled "Best Southern Chefs" and in the image list up top, there was not a single black chef. That is scary.
January 30, 2017, 9:00am
Photo courtesy of Chef Edouardo Jordan

Photo courtesy of Chef Edouardo Jordan

Southern hospitality is instilled in my blood.

Southern food is a lifestyle. It's heritage. It's roots. It's life. It's sadness. It's growth. It's prosperity. It's the struggle. It is the backbone of American cuisine and it is what built America: rice, corn, peas, and other grains. We quickly forgot this. At a certain point, we recognised French cuisine as the standard of cuisine in America.

This is bull.

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When I first started cooking professionally, I ran away from Southern cooking because that's all my grandma cooked, and it's all that my mom cooked. It's all that I knew. I thought: To become the best chef in this country, you have to learn French cuisine! Then that became Italian cuisine, then Spanish cuisine, but you never heard anyone talk about Southern cuisine. It was always the second-tiered, way-at-the-bottom cuisine to know about and care about.

Why was I so far away from what my foundation in cooking was? It was a struggle because reality said that the greatest chefs in the world were French-driven chefs. I got brainwashed to think this in culinary school. I didn't know any better then.

As I got further in my career and journey as a chef, I asked myself: What defines me? What resonates with me? It was the Southern food that I cooked at home. That is what I resonated with. I then found myself cooking whatever cuisine at work with that thoughtfulness that could only be found in Southern cuisine. When I was in the process of opening up my first restaurant. The name, Salare, spoke Italian, but the food is a gathering of French, Italian, and Southern cuisine together. I continued introducing more Southern elements into my cooking. I found myself getting closer and closer to my roots. I was no longer cooking what Joe Blow Chef and the other restaurant owner told me to cook. I was getting my own voice as a chef.

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I never thought I was going to be a chef. I graduated with degrees in business and sports management, though it didn't feel right. After attending many Sunday suppers with my family at my grandma's house growing up, I realised how food really made me happy. I started cooking during college and it really moved me when people ate my food and genuinely were having a great time.

Remember, we didn't eat chitlins because we wanted to eat fucking intestines—we ate it because it was something that the masters didn't want to eat.

My earliest memories with food are of being in the kitchen, sweating, learning, and cooking with Grandma. She never had a fucking recipe and only cooked from the hips, like most Southern grandmas do. If it tasted good and if was smelling good, then it was going to be good. Fuck the recipe. Fuck a scale. We're not using grams. Let's just season properly and make it taste good. My grandma made anything she got her hands on—scraps, trimmings, off-cuts, whatever—taste good.

It's only been a little over a year that I've started to embrace my Southern style. I'm about to open my second restaurant that will highlight everything Southern, named JuneBaby. I am no longer afraid. This will be full-blown. Southern cuisine is here.

Now, Southern cuisine is super popular and it is the super cool thing to eat; everybody is doing it. But now also, all the cool Southern chefs are white chefs. What happened to all the black chefs that have been cooking Southern food for the longest and never got recognised? All the beautiful mom-and-pops' behind places in South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama that have been doing what these young guns are doing and recognised in the media, where are they? Let's stop and talk about tradition and foundation first, and then let's start recognising all these guys that are so-called making "movements" in the Southern world.

Yes, Southern food is built on a high-fat, high-protein, and high-grain foundation, but you know what? That is because people worked in the fields day in and night out. They had to extend energy.

Yesterday, I Googled "Best Southern Chefs" and in the image list up top, there was not a single black chef. That is scary. Much love to anyone who is holding it up, don't get me wrong. But you want to talk about Southern cuisine? It was built on the back of African slaves who were dragged from West Africa and put on ships. They created the foundation of Southern food after learning from Native Americans. We need to stop and pay homage to these men and women first. I'm not trying to be a food politics spokesperson but why is it now cool because white chefs are doing it?

Seeing all this brought me to the point: I have to own up. I have to find my place. This is one of my fiery reasons why I am doing my food, but it has its place.

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People may initially steer away from chitlins but I plan on serving them at JuneBaby, as soon as I could execute it properly, because there is history in this dish. Remember, we didn't eat chitlins because we wanted to eat fucking intestines—we ate it because it was something that the masters didn't want to eat. Chitlins, tails, hearts, hog heads, trotters, livers were our payments for work. That is all we had to eat. I think if you can cook a pot of fucking chitlins or pork liver without blending it into a pate and make it taste good, then we are talking in terms of what makes you a truly great chef.

People think that Southern food is unhealthy but first of all, Southerners did not fry everything, nor did they eat fried chicken everyday. We got a bad reputation because of a few franchises that forced unhealthy versions of cheap Southern food. A lot of Southerners come from a life of hard living and hard backgrounds—you gotta eat what you gotta eat to survive. How deep do you want to go? Yes, it is built on a high-fat, high-protein, and high-grain foundation, but you know what? That is because people worked in the fields day in and night out. They had to extend energy. They didn't get unhealthy because they worked it all off. Don't look at it as being bad for you—look at it as being resourceful with what we had.

Find yourself, cook, enjoy, and don't forget what your roots brings to the table.

My menu will teach the struggle without feeling the struggle. It's not going to be a museum or a school of African-American cuisine, but at the same time I just want people to know and appreciate good Southern food. There will be healthy alternatives. It's not only fried chicken, collard greens, and macaroni and cheese. There is so much more to it, many deeply rooted ingredients that kept America and many African slaves alive. I'm going to focus on these ingredients. I'm going to embrace the stereotypes. I love watermelon. It may have some bad connotations but let's be real, it is fucking delicious. And sure, yes, we do make a damn good pot of collard greens. I'm not going to be afraid face this stereotype or any others no more.

There is lots of talent behind this food and now people will now know.

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There are so many diverse people in the US. We can't just be a black and white country. I want other young chefs to find their roots and history through food. We are all Americans. As Southerners, or wherever you may be from, by finding your roots, you will be able to share your story with everyone so we can love and learn from another.

Find yourself, cook, enjoy, and don't forget what your roots brings to the table.

As told to Javier Cabral

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Chef Edouardo Jordan is a chef based in Seattle, Washington. His Southern restaurant JuneBaby is slated to open in February.