Food & Drink

How a Richmond Chef Honors Black Cooks Past and Present

Leah Branch’s Juneteenth celebration includes recipes for sweet tea watermelon salad and chilled peach soup

A woman in a black shirt stands in front of a mural

Photo: Courtesy of the Roosevelt

Leah Branch.

Growing up in Chesterfield, Virginia, Leah Branch didn’t learn about Juneteenth in school. But the history of that holiday, which commemorates the end of slavery in the United States, found her anyway. “I went to a Black church, and honestly a lot of my Black education came from there,” says Branch, now thirty-eight and the executive chef of the Roosevelt in Richmond. “They would take us on field trips to Black museums. They made sure they gave us what we weren’t getting in school.”

photo: Courtesy of the Roosevelt
The Roosevelt in Richmond’s Church Hill neighborhood.

Today, Branch continues sharing that history in her role at the casual New Southern restaurant. In 2023, Branch hosted the Roosevelt’s first Juneteenth dinner with the food anthropologist, writer, and host of the Setting the Table podcast, Deb Freeman. The meal celebrated the legacies of eight African-American culinary figures, including Edna Lewis and John Dabney. “We touched on semi-classical approaches to the way they made food and how they laid the foundations for Virginia cuisine and Southern cuisine,” Branch says. In attendance at that dinner was the culinary historian Leni Sorensen. 

photo: Courtesy of the Roosevelt
Inside the Roosevelt.

Branch made a trip of her own to Indigo House just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, where Sorensen hosted a dinner celebrating three generations of Black cooking and sharing dishes from her family history. That sparked Branch’s idea for this year’s celebration, which will take place on Wednesday, June 19.

“I was just like, why don’t we just talk about your life?” Branch says. At eighty-one, there isn’t much Sorensen hasn’t done. She grew up in California and was a folk singer in the 1960s. She spent the seventies teaching cooking classes and hosting dinner parties. She raised four children, served as Monticello’s African American Research Historian, and earned her doctorate in American studies from the College of William & Mary at the age of sixty.

The two agreed to build a dinner at the Roosevelt based around Sorensen’s experiences, with a menu that will include such Southern staples as collard greens and cornpone but also dishes like tamales, which highlight her time in Arizona.

The meal will also give Sorensen a chance to share her expertise as an educator, with a nod to her canning and butchery classes. “What is interesting about how Juneteenth spread in the late nineteenth century is that it’s the great migration of people moving from the South to wherever it is they went and bringing with them traditions and food,” Sorensen says.

photo: Courtesy of the Roosevelt
Branch’s Sweet Tea Watermelon Salad and Chilled Peach Soup with Pickled Cherries.

Branch says the meal isn’t about hammering the lessons of Juneteenth but rather sharing a meal and an experience with her community. “We want people to feel invited and included to have a good time with it. And if you happen to pick up a little bit of history that makes you appreciate another culture just a little bit more, that’d be awesome.”

For folks who can’t make it to this year’s Juneteenth dinner, Branch has created two recipes that are perfect for a casual celebration or backyard barbecue. In the first, she roasts peaches to bring out their natural sweetness and then purees them to make a luxurious chilled soup. And in her Sweet Tea Watermelon Salad, two staples of a Southern summer come together to create a sweet and tangy dish that finds balance thanks to the addition of peppery arugula and radishes.