COVID-19 changed the restaurant industry as we knew it. And even as businesses begin to reopen across the country, there are countless challenges ahead. In this series, Restaurant Quality, we're checking in with a few of our favorite chef-slash–cookbook authors and seeing how they're holding up. Along the way, you'll get signature recipes to make at home—and find out how you can support the chefs and their staffs. Today, we're catching up with Todd Richards.
To Chef Todd Richards, soul food is the original farm-to-table cooking in America.
This concept is clear after flipping through even a few recipes from Richards’ 2018 cookbook, Soul: A Chef's Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipes, whose chapters are organized by ingredients. There are photos of collards, onions, corn, and berries in the ground; then sizzling away on the stove, braising in stockpots, pickling in jars; and finally dished up onto platters and served, family-style, with thoughtfully paired drinks and music (more on that later).
“Soul food shows a story of perseverance—that you can take ingredients and make them delicious regardless of your economic status,” Richards told me. “Its foundation is solid cooking techniques that came from the coast of Africa, then picked up other influences along the way through the slave trade, as well as the Native American population that was here already.”
In the book’s introduction, Richards wrote that as a child in Arkansas, he “grew up conflicted,” seeing social divides, typically based on race and religion, in a world where many “would rather not eat than accept an offering of food from someone who's different.” He noticed that his classmates who came from other countries had strong connections to their heritage, and wondered why he didn’t have these feelings of his own. “Who are my people?” he wondered.
As an adult working in kitchens, he described chefs taking on the role of “preachers of cuisine.” When they spoke of their foods, he wanted to convert. Though Richards could cook French food as well as the next person on the line, there was something tugging at him to share soul food—the food of his ancestors, enslaved Africans in the South—with the masses. He refers to this cookbook as his sermon.
“People have this stereotype of what soul food is,” he said. “The perception is that it's unhealthy...and in our household, we never really cook that way.”
The tension Richards felt in his youth, however, has become one of his biggest assets as a recipe developer and two-time James Beard Award–nominated chef. His food is often rooted in African-American foodways, but he doesn’t shy away from techniques and ingredients that wouldn’t have been a part of his ancestors’ tradition, embracing the concept of a global pantry.
In early July, Richards opened Lake & Oak BBQ in Atlanta with Chef Joshua Lee (the first project to come from their new partnership, the Soulful Company Restaurant Group). Richards says the restaurant, which is currently functioning as a weekend pop-up, will feature a rotating Black chef series. They recently hosted chefs Erika Council of Bomb Biscuits Atlanta and Virgil Harper of ROC South; Council made biscuit sandwiches (chicken and collards, fried green tomatoes and pimento cheese, and eggs and cheese) and Harper served beef short ribs and kimchi, and smoked salmon croquettes with crispy grits.
In addition to serving on the board of Wholesome Wave Georgia, an organization that aims to increase the overall health of Georgians through better access to locally grown food, Richards is also currently the culinary director of Jackmont Hospitality. In this role, he oversees the restaurants One Flew South and Chicken + Beer, both located in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Understandably, with pandemic-induced drops in travel, it’s a strange time to be operating such establishments. One Flew South, a so-called “Southernational'' restaurant (Southern-inspired fare through an international lens, like collard green ramen, the recipe for which is also in Soul) remains closed, as it’s in a closed concourse. Chicken + Beer, co-owned with rapper Ludacris, reopened in June—though Richards notes that ever-shifting flight schedules and capacity limits on staff and customers aren’t easy.
While he hopes they’ll be able to reopen One Flew South soon, his utmost concern is safety: “There's multiple things you think about in operating a restaurant in the airport just to begin with...and when you have a pandemic, what is usually seasonal travel changes,” he said. “It’s really important that we partner with the airport in order to make sure that we're opening at the correct and proper time. It's one step at a time.”
As restaurants begin to reopen around the country, he did have some advice for customers. “The best way to support restaurants is certainly to buy from them,” he said. The only caveat: “Understand that most restaurants that are open are running at half-staff or limited staffing, so have some patience with them.”
Though Richards is eager to jump fully back into work, he’s welcomed the time to share meals with his family more regularly. He was excited to solve some home cooking dilemmas that have been posed to him at times, and eager to share results with his audience. “I really put myself in the role of a consumer, and now I have even more answers that I can help people with while they're cooking.”
When it comes to cooking at home, Richards loves to follow the seasons, and late summer certainly calls out for berries. His blueberry sweet tea–brined chicken thighs are the ideal meal for a balmy evening.
“You always make a big batch of sweet tea, but you basically never use it all,” he said of the recipe’s inception. “It became a great way to use up something that most people would just not keep.”
Blueberry simple syrup sweetens a batch of tea, which turns into a brine for chicken thighs. “I thought it was unique to have something that provides a little bit more savory quality as a fruit, compared to something that's just straight acidic, like lemon.”
Richards aims for a holistic experience, even at the home dinner table. Every main dish in Soul is accompanied by myriad drink pairings—in the case of the chicken thighs, it’s a number of light-, medium-, and full-bodied wine options (like white Burgundy, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Pinot Noir) as well as hoppy beers and bourbon cocktails. He also created a playlist to accompany the book.
“Cooking is about rhythm and timing,” Richards said. “Utilize the music to keep up with the cooking, and make food really delicious.”
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