Soul Food Gone Gourmet: Cuisine invented by slaves prepared for the well-heeled
Specially commissioned abstract art is on the wall, jazz is on the sound system, white linen is on the tables and Dom Perignon ($190 a bottle) on the wine list. On the menu, below the stuffed portobella mushroom appetizer and pan-seared scallops, are deep-fried catfish, collard and mustard greens, and macaroni and cheese. Don’t forget the cobbler or sweet potato pie.
Soul food has gone gourmet.
Brownstone on Main, just blocks from the Statehouse and downtown theaters in Columbus, Ohio, opened last August and was named one of the five best new restaurants of the year by the city magazine Columbus Monthly. Downtown attorneys meet clients over lunch, jazz fans watch bands from cushioned benches and doctors leaving late-night shifts at a nearby hospital can get dinner from a kitchen open past midnight. “No, this is not the food my grandmother makes. It’s just very good food,” says Danni Palmore, a political consultant and community organizer.
Many traditional Southern recipes arose from dishes created by slaves using plantation castoffs, wild plants and rations of cornmeal, mixed with imported African crops such as okra. In the past 20 years, posh restaurants in America’s biggest cities started serving old favorites with choice ingredients and new twists, such as substituting smoked turkey breast for ham hocks in collard greens. “The biggest reason it’s happening is the growth of the Black middle class,” says Thomas Dorsey, chief executive of Soul Of America in Torrance, Calif., which produces maps and city guides geared for Black travelers.
Among the first was Jezebel in the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York, where owner and chef Alberta Wright has been serving highbrow down-home cooking since 1983. The big-city restaurants occupy prime real estate, Dorsey says. B. Smith’s first restaurant is in New York, a block from Broadway, and its Capitol Hill location is in the former Presidential Suite of Union Station. Rapper and fashion designer Sean “P. Diddy” Combs chose one of the poshest Atlanta neighborhoods for the newest Justin’s, which also started in New York.
“What’s happening in the last five to 10 years is Southern food is getting the respect it deserves,” says Jeff Gillian, who started Brownstone with fellow Columbus music promoter Greg Provo. If Brownstone does well, the partners would like to expand to Indianapolis, Milwaukee or Louisville, Ky. “We definitely looked at this as not being a single opportunity. The niche is to get in the marketplace and be the only one,” Gillian says.
They’re not alone in that thought.
Patrick Coleman began Beans & Cornbread seven years ago in the business hub of Southfield, a Detroit suburb. He says his Black customers often skip the soul food for dishes such as salmon, but he’ll see Asians eating collards or black-eyed peas for the first time. “I could see this concept working anywhere in the Midwest,” Coleman says. “In a lot of ways, it’s just comfort food.”
Other recent entries include the year-old Gookies, chef Tom Paige’s childhood nickname, on Cleveland’s east side and Alexandria’s on Second, which opened in July in Seattle. At the two-year-old Sweet Georgia Brown in Detroit, the concept has gone so upscale that a pork chop (grilled) and sweet potatoes (baked with honey butter or prepared as “skinny fries”) are the most Southern items on the dinner menu. The high-end restaurants happily coexist with mom-and-pop soul food diners, but traditional dishes such as greens, fried chicken or macaroni and cheese are served on fine china with carved-fruit garnishes and, as Dorsey says, are “a little less drippy.”