American Southern Cuisine: What’s Next?
A host of chefs from all corners of the American South were assembled at the conference to not only highlight the foods and flavors of their respective regions, but to provide their perspectives as to the future direction of this most beloved of American cuisines.
The group was led by writer and producer John T. Edge, who is also the co-founding director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization dedicated to studying and documenting the evolving cuisines of the country’s Southern regions.
In his opening talk, Edge stated that as the South continues to resolve its history of tragedy, its cuisine is entering a renaissance, with a rapidly growing number of American chefs and dining consumers alike showing keen interest in the pleasures of Southern cooking.
“The South is America’s front porch,” he said, “and our food tells the stories about our many regions.” Edge believes that the future lies with a new cadre of chefs that are “bulldozing the expected, while retaining tradition.”
When asked what he believes is next, Michael Fojtasek, executive chef/owner of Olamaie in Austin, Texas, said, “We are exiting the ‘technique-driven’ era and entering one that is driven by product quality. We’re past the point of seeing how many tricks we can put on a plate. Artisan-quality ingredients are making their way onto casual menus. They are no longer simply for fine dining.”
Fojtasek cited American country hams as an example of this artisanal movement. “Our best country hams rival any of the products coming out of Italy or Spain,” he said. “Talk about artisan quality—when you call these producers to place your order, many times the person answering the phone is the same person who makes the ham.”
During one of the seminar breakout sessions, Fojtasek hosted a tasting of country hams from three different producers; the hams ranged in age from eight months to two years. A single taste provided validation of his assertion regarding the flavor and quality of these hams. The chef also interjected a “what’s next?” regarding the future of these products.
Several of the producers have begun holding back some of their inventory and aging them for additional years, to create “super-premium” country hams, reserved exclusively for their best restaurant customers.
The tasting sessions provided numerous examples of skillfully prepared Southern classics, with an equal amount of dishes that were clearly “bulldozing the expected.”
Following traditional lines, Fojtasek served a Carolina Gold Hushpuppy garnished with 18-month aged country ham and black walnuts soaked in Wild Turkey, and an Olamaie Deviled Egg with creamed yolk, pickled mustard seeds and smoked pepper. And Brooklyn-based Carolina pitmaster Elizabeth Karmel wowed attendees with a Sweet Potato Bourbon Mash topped with her signature Sugar & Spice Pecans.
Then many of the “new cadre” Southern chefs brought out their bulldozers, including Atlanta-based chef Eli Kirshtein, who served Blackeyed Pea Falafels with benne tahini yogurt, and a 26-hour smoked brisket and root vegetables served with latkes and charoset, a coarse fruit-and-nut paste traditionally served at Passover.
Ned Elliott, chef/owner of Foreign & Domestic in Austin, Texas, served Morels and Pickled Ramps with “scrambled eggs” that were emulsified and dispensed as a light chiffon from a nitrogen charger, and a delicious combination of Pickled Corn Pancakes with maple buttermilk and blistered shishito peppers.
The true showstopper was the Kerala Fried Chicken demonstrated and served by Asha Gomez, another Atlanta-based chef, who until recently helmed Spice to Table. Gomez uses strictly boneless, skinless chicken thighs for her fried chicken, which are marinated at least 24 hours in her signature “green brine,” a purée of garlic, ginger, Serrano and jalapeño peppers, cilantro, yogurt and “lots of salt.” The thighs are tossed in unseasoned flour, fried to a crispy crunch and finished with a drizzle of coconut oil. The result is a truly singular fried chicken with nearly endless depth of flavor and a challenging amount of heat.