June 22, 2018

Todd Richards

“Food has been such a critical part of my life—every memory about my family is about food.”
Interview by
In late May, Atlanta chef Todd Richards published his first cookbook, Soul, which celebrates his evolving relationship with Soul food. For Richards, Soul food is far from narrowly defined—it encompasses a myriad of influences and regions, from his mother’s love of Chinese food to a childhood predilection for fried pies. It’s also deeply personal.
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James Beard-nominated chef Todd Richards recently published his first cookbook, Soul, which is our Top Pick in Cooking for June. Soul celebrates Richards’ ever-evolving relationship with soul food while pushing past stereotypical ideas about its definition. For Richards, soul food is deeply personal and far from narrowly defined: The endpapers of Soul feature photos of Richards and his family, and the recipes encompass a myriad of influences, from his mother’s love of Chinese food to a childhood predilection for fried pies. 

BookPage editor Lily McLemore sat down with Richards to chat about his new book before joining him for a celebratory dinner prepared by Richards and his friend chef Sean Brock at Brock’s Nashville restaurant, Husk. Click here for Richards’ recipe for Grilled Peach Toast with Pimiento Cheese. 

Lily McLemore: How has it all been going so far?
Todd Richards:
So the book came out three weeks ago, and it’s been really amazing, the response—and not only the response, just people understanding the perspective that I’m coming from. And it’s a gorgeous book. It is as beautiful as it is handsome, which I think is really important for a good cookbook. That you can have a lot of this masculine feel with all this wonderful feminist beauty inside of it. Turning the first page and seeing my mom there. . . . Then, just, the judgment of my peers, whom I highly respect, who are telling me, “Man we needed this book for a very long time.”

I was looking at these pictures from your childhood in the book, and I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about some of the dishes you ate growing up in Chicago.
The book is a little biographical when it comes to the actual dishes in there. We started with things like traditionally cooked collard greens and then progressed forward. My mom had a love for Chinese food. There was a Chinese place on 87th and Jeffery, and she’d get what’s called yakamein. It’s basically noodles, broth, two slices of pork belly, a soft-boiled egg and scallions. My dad, in his frugality, said, if we ordered something out, anything in the refrigerator that was leftover had to put out on the table as well. So having collard greens on the table with that dish, and then you see the collard green ramen in the book—this is a dish I was eating when I was 5, 6 years old. The way that I interpreted it is a little bit different because of my background in cooking, but it’s the exact same dish I was eating as a kid.

Then there’s other dishes like the Blueberry Fried Pie. Growing up in Chicago with the Hostess factory, that whole Hostess culture—tearing that paper off and then eating it, and all the icing on the packets. Having a great fried pie, for me, is like being a kid all over again. I interpret this recipe a little bit differently: Instead of cooking the blueberries to mush, you make the liquid and then you put the blueberries inside of it. So when you bite into that fried pie, the blueberries burst in your mouth, you know? You get all this really fresh blueberry flavor that’s not overly sweet in the fried pie. It’s just really taking my childhood memories and progressing them to fine-dining dishes, and then writing a cookbook that I think everyone can enjoy.

Can you tell me a bit about how you got from Chicago to fine dining and now being a James Beard Award-nominated chef and restaurant owner?
My dad worked in downtown Chicago, at a place called Montgomery Ward, which no longer exists. He worked from eight at night to eight in the morning, Thursday, Friday and Saturday night. Some nights my mom would cook for him, but some nights we took my dad downtown to work, and we’d eat. So our family ate out constantly. I remember we went to Lawry’s steakhouse in Chicago. The chef came out with the big old hat on and opened up that prime rib cart: prime rib, lamb, mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, green beans, horse radish sauce, au jus and bread. Just in the cart! You open it up, and it’s like this whole glory of things! So my life has always been around food.

In the book, you write about the broad definition of soul food for you. It beautifully meanders across influences and across the world. Did that fluidity come naturally to you?
I think soul food is a broad definition. Just like people say Southern or Chinese. You look at Chinese food—you can go Szechuan, you can go to many different regions in China. When you say soul food, it’s really a vast difference from the South to the North to the West Coast, how that’s interpreted. I think in the South, Southern and soul run the same gamut. When you get farther north, you see different influences come in. If you get to Florida, you’ll see the Caribbean influences come in. If you go to the West Coast and see soul food, it’s way more vegetable-focused than it is on the East Coast. And it has a lot of Latin influences and Asian influences as well.

So I think I just pulled all the stories that I knew about food together, then spoke about it through my family’s lens and then how it translated to fine dining.

You include really wonderful pieces of food history in your book. Was it important for you to pull in history?
I think so. I don’t think you can talk about soul food and not understand the history of it. That term started in the 1950s and ’60s, and there isn’t really a lot of modern context out there. That’s what I really wanted to do: show the modern context of where that food came from. And to give a brief history of it, because I’m not a revisionist of history, and there’s some much better historians out there than myself that have done it and are doing it, like Adrian E. Miller, of course, Michael W. Twitty, Toni Tipton-Martin. They’re great historians of it. I wanted to show it in a modern context. Not only where it came from and paying homage to that but really how vast it is, and how far we can explore it and make it even more delicious than what it is.

Todd Richards grilling with Sean Brock at Husk in Nashville, Tennessee.

You’re based right now in Atlanta. Do you ever think about expanding outside of the South?
You know, the government won’t allow cloning yet, but if the government allowed me to clone myself, I would think about it quite more seriously. I do have a soft place to go back to Chicago and do a restaurant there. There are places I’ve dreamed about going, but I think the reality is, I won’t do it at this point in time. I’m not a young person anymore. But you know, I’m saying all that, and if someone called from New York or LA right now and said, “Hey do you want to do a restaurant out there?” I’d probably do it. [Laughs.]

Is there any particular person or chefs that really had an influence on you?
Yeah, that would be Chef Evans. Chef Darryl Evans. I met him at what is now the Four Seasons Hotel—before that it was the Occidental Grand Hotel—in Atlanta. He was the first African-American chef to compete in the Culinary Olympics. Four gold medals, two silver medals. They were so shocked that he made it to the team that the culinary federation made him go to Germany and redo the entire thing in front of them.

When was this?
Late ’80s, early ’90s. He was a very brilliant chef. I think he’s probably one of the most unsung chefs, especially for African-American chefs. Unfortunately he passed away a few years ago. I think he’s really unsung, because out of that kitchen came nine or 10 African-American chefs who are either exec-chef level, chef-owner level or something like that.

But I pull influences from all over. I pull influences from when I was a kid, with my grandmother watching the whole Saturday lineup of cooking shows: “Yan Can Cook,” Julia Child, Justin Wilson, Jacques Pépin. That’s what I’m saying. Food has been such a critical part of my life—every memory about my family is about food.

In the book, you’re really pushing against stereotypes. I was wondering if you could talk a little more about that.
At one of my first jobs after Blue Ribbon Grill that I applied for, the chef de cuisine asked me, “What are you gonna do? Come in and cook soul food? Fried chicken, mac and cheese? No body wants that here.” And it put me in a place—like, I know this is delicious. Why in the hell would nobody want it? But if he’s the chef, and he’s saying nobody wants it, then maybe I shouldn’t be cooking this.

It wasn’t until about 2004, 10 years later, that I was at the Oak Room in Louisville, Kentucky. We had a tasting menu, and we’re doing a lot of the great dishes of the South and everything. But at some point someone has to be telling their story, and I know it’s a great story because my parents were great people. Before, I didn’t have one single dish with watermelon because of the stereotyped caricature of watermelon in our country’s history. And that was the first time I ever did a watermelon dish on a menu. Middle of summer, watermelon is beautiful. It’s versatile, you can juice it, you can puree it, you can compress it, which is a modernist technique. So we did a whole tasting of watermelon, and we used every single part. We pickled the rind, we took the seeds and dehydrated them and mixed them with hibiscus powder so we had a spice. It was a way to just throw away the stereotypes and embrace how delicious damn watermelon is in the middle of the summer when it’s 100 degrees outside! It’s the perfect food for that! And that to me has really became the emphasis—not being shameful of my culture’s food, but embracing it and telling the world how great it is, standing on a chair, beating my chest, saying, “This food is delicious!” If you don’t want to pay for it, that’s your problem, not mine.

I noticed that you included soundtracks with the suggested menus. Can you tell me about that connection between food and music for you?
People ask me that question all the time. I say, “Well, you know what, have you ever eaten in a silent restaurant?” Can you imagine that? You can hear every plate clinking and all that. But cooking is a rhythmic art. When you chop, you don’t chop unsyncopated; all this stuff is a rhythm. And I wanted to give people a sense of what my rhythm was in writing this book.

Food is a temporary art. You put it on there, you consume it, it always changes. Music always stays the same in the sense that, once it’s recorded and it’s out there, you can listen to that same track over and over. Food is not that way. Things change too much. A tomato is not always the same size. It’s just not. Everything changes in nature. Music stays. It’s an art form that you can consume in the same manner all the time.

You mention that you love the radish so much that you got a tattoo of it. I was wondering what your favorite ingredient to work with is?
You know, it changes all the time. We grow a lot of food at home.

Oh really! What do you grow?
We have tomatoes, peppers, onions, jalapenos, cucumbers, ground cherries, tomatillos, watermelon, fig, Meyer lemons, of course all the herbs in the world, and potatoes. And all this is in a three-bedroom town home.

No deer around to eat all your stuff!
No, no. Occasional rabbit, but my wife won’t let me kill it. [Laughs.]

He’s a friend!
I guess. But I’m like, if we ever get hungry! [Laughs.] But so, it really depends. I like walking to the farmer’s market and talking to the farmers. That’s what inspires me with food. I’m definitely a seasonal guy. More so, that’s the way my grandmother cooked when I was a kid.

You write about the often-overlooked meat cuts. Is there any piece of offal that you wish Americans in general would embrace more wholeheartedly?
I mean, if you want to get into the most soul food way, chitterlings. My sister makes really, really good chitterlings. I like them fried. Or you can julienne them really fine and fold them into something. But offal-wise, I love sweetbreads. My doctor wouldn’t like it too much, but I could eat sweetbreads everyday. When it gets to chicken, the liver, the gizzards, the heart are some of the best.

I feel like at some point the offal is going to cost more than the chicken breast.
Well, look at ox tail. It’s a perfect example of that. Ox tail used to be 69 cents a pound. Now ox tails are $4.49-5.99 a pound. I mean, I understand it from a scale—there’s only one tail per cow, you know!

That’s true!
I can get it from that standpoint. My favorite, though, is lamb heart. Lamb heart tartare is so delicious. It’s not gamey like other parts of the lamb can be. The heart—just, nice small dices of it. A great taco to me? Lengua taco. Beef tongue tacos. Those are the best tacos. Tender, when you crunch into it you get the cilantro . . . I stopped eating red meat a long time ago, but that lengua taco? Man, that’s good.

So what’s your hope for the future of soul food?
My hope is that more chefs embrace cooking it. That from a value standpoint, it gets to the same point as French food. Soul food takes some of the longest cooking time to make it really taste delicious. Collards greens on the first day are great. Collard greens on the second day are even better. Collard greens on the third day? I mean, you would smack somebody to get a bowl.

It’s just—how much skill does it take to make chitterlings taste good? It takes a lot of skill and know-how to even get them cleaned right. So we have a food that takes the longest to cook, but we charge the least amount for. It’s not a sustainable model moving forward.

Whats next for you?
I keep asking myself that. I know I need to get back to my restaurants! Oh, my goodness. But opening more restaurants, writing more, trying to find a good outlet for a show that I want to do based on the book. That would be my ultimate goal in two years: to have a show done based off the book. And really just expand the conversation around it. And to mentor more chefs. That’s number one, everyday. If people saw my phone, most of the time I’m talking to young chefs. I spend a lot of my day answering questions.

I’m very excited about the dinner tonight!
Yeah, so am I. I don’t get to see Sean [Brock] that often. Years ago we used to hang out with each other a lot more. But now he’s busy with his empire, and I’m trying to build an empire. But we go back a long way. We always stood up for each other, because we were always doing things far outreaching what people thought we should do. Him coming out of Appalachia, me coming from Chicago, we always modernize food, and we always went way back to pull things up to push things way, way forward. I think that’s how we became friends.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Soul.

Get the Book

Soul

Soul

By Todd Richards
Oxmoor House
ISBN 9780848754419

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