Food & Drink

Todd Richards’ Real Southern Soul

Save a spot on your shelf for Atlanta chef Todd Richards’ stunning new cookbook

photo: Eric Vitale Photography

Atlanta chef Todd Richards.

Todd Richard’s collards are in your face: The cover of his new cookbook, Soul: A Chef’s Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipes, is a close-up of dewy collards that are so vivid you expect to be able to feel the velvety leather of the leaves. If you miss the point, open the book. The very first chapter is all collards, with recipes that take them to places you may never have considered: Collard pesto with oysters. Collard waffles. Collard ramen. 

Yes, this is a man who takes his collards seriously. But it’s not just collards. Instead of the usual lineup of appetizers, sides, and main dishes, the chapters in Soul are focused on ingredients. There’s a whole chapter just on onions—who does that?— and another on melons. Lamb, a meat that receives precious little attention in the South, gets its own chapter, while pork has to share a chapter with beef.

Richards can be unexpected. Born and raised in Chicago in a family that believed in exploring the world, he came to Atlanta in the 1990s looking for a job in the music industry, ended up in a grocery store meat department, and somehow followed that with a job for the influential African-American chef Darryl Evans at the Four Seasons Hotel. After a lengthy list of experiences—the Ritz-Carlton, The Pig and the Pearl, and the development group behind One Flew South, among others—he has settled in with Richards’ Southern Fried in the Krog Street Market.

We caught Richards early on a Saturday—he’d already been out and about for hours—to find out more about Soul. Keep reading below, and to sample two recipes from the book: Shrimp and Grits with Grits Crust and Grilled Peach Toast with Pimento Cheese.


In your book, you always spell “Soul” with a capital S. What’s the difference between Soul with a big S and soul with a little s?

It really comes down to American relevance to me, that Soul is a cuisine that belongs in the same place as French cuisine or Italian cuisine or Japanese cuisine. It requires a great amount of cooking and ingredients, but we charge the absolute least for it.

 

Do you consciously think about breaking rules and about what should fit into the canon of Soul cooking?

Soul food is a genre that has always broken the rules. Look at something like chitterlings that no one ever thought should be good, but they can be delicious. Soul food has done that religiously. Look at the use of watermelon rind [as a pickle]. That was a traditional way of using it and preserving it in Africa, instead of just throwing it away. Soul food is about breaking the rules and mashing things together that wouldn’t be commonplace.

 

When do you surprise yourself in the kitchen?

The biggest surprises for me are the things I eat all the time. I can eat all the delicious things in the world, but I gravitate back to scrambled eggs and roasted potatoes. I cook extravagant things for everyone in the world, but I cook the most basic things for myself.

 

Your book is broken down by ingredients, instead of styles or types of dishes. What does that say about how you approach cooking?

It’s that food can always evolve into something else. Foods that start one way can go into different genres. Like my Collard Green Ramen: That’s how I grew up. My mom loves [Asian] takeout, like noodle soups, and my frugal dad never threw anything out. So [leftover] collard greens were always on the table with noodle soups and things like that. Those ingredients always led to other dishes.

 

Your path to chef wasn’t a straight line. Are you surprised by where you ended up?

My family was always talking about reading. And we utilized reading as a way to explore the world, and then we followed it up by traveling to these places we read about. Food was always the focal point of those discussions. So it makes sense to me that I ended up as a chef. To be an author is a surprise. I take it as a humility that someone is interested in reading something I wrote, rather than taking something I put on the plate.

 

There’s so much conversation now about what we need to do to get more black chefs and black-owned restaurants. Where does it start and how do we fix the system?

I think [it] starts with black chefs. We have to network and support each other more, economically. We can’t ask others to do things that we aren’t doing ourselves. Second, we have to actually own more restaurants, and that comes with lending practices that are sound and reasonable. Third, especially in areas of new development, is that the model has to change for restaurants to be successful, because money-grabbing real estate is a right-now thing that’s about being profitable right now. The [James Beard Foundation] awards this year is proving that the balance is coming. There’s more diversity [in the awards] this year, absolutely. It’s starting to happen. The South is leading the diversity movement.”


Kathleen Purvis is the food editor of The Charlotte Observer and the author of three books, including the newly released Distilling the South.


Grilled Peach Toast with Pimento Cheese

Chef Todd Richards blends two Southern classics for a sweet and savory treat

Serves 4 as an appetizer or 2 as an entrée

Ingredients

  • For the Toast

    • 2 firm-ripe peaches, halved and pitted

    • 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon blended oil

    • 1 medium-size ripe avocado

    • 4 (1⁄2-inch-thick) slices multigrain boule-style bread

    • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

    • 1⁄4 cup thinly sliced red radishes (about 3 ounces)

    • 1 bunch watercress

    • 1 teaspoon gray sea salt

    • 1⁄2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

  • For the Pimento Cheese

    • 4 bacon slices

    • 1 tablespoon blended olive oil

    • 2 small red bell peppers, stems removed, finely diced (about 1 1⁄4 cups)

    • 2 teaspoons adobo sauce from canned chipotle peppers

    • 1⁄4 cup mayonnaise

    • 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

    • 2 teaspoons hot sauce

    • 1⁄2 teaspoon dry mustard

    • 1⁄2 teaspoon granulated garlic

    • 1⁄4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

    • 4 ounces white Cheddar cheese, shredded (about 1 cup)

    • 4 ounces sharp Cheddar cheese, shredded (about 1 cup)

    • 4 ounces cream cheese, softened

    • 2 tablespoons thinly sliced chives


Preparation

  1. For the Toast: 

  2. Preheat a grill to medium-high (450°F).

  3. Brush the peach halves with 1 tablespoon of the blended oil, and place on the grill grates, cut sides down. Grill, uncovered, until grill marks appear and the juices begin to release, about 3 minutes. Remove from the grill, and slice. Set aside.

  4. Cut the avocado in half lengthwise, pit, and brush cut sides with 1 teaspoon of the blended oil. Place halves, cut sides down, on the grill grates. Grill, uncovered, just until the avocado is charred and begins to soften, about 5 minutes. Remove from the grill.

  5. Brush the bread slices with the remaining 1 tablespoon oil, and place on the grill grates. Grill until the bread is toasted, about 2 minutes per side. Remove from the grill.

  6. Spread Pimento Cheese onto 1 side of each piece of toast. Cut each piece into 4 equal rectangles, keeping the pieces together.

  7. Scoop the avocado from the peel into a medium bowl and mash with 1 tablespoon of the extra-virgin olive oil until it is chunky and spreadable. Spoon onto the toast, and top with sliced peaches.

  8. Top the toast slices with radish slices and watercress leaves. Drizzle the remaining 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil over the toast slices, and sprinkle with gray sea salt and black pepper.

  9. Note: If watercress is unavailable, arugula or curly mustard greens can be substituted.


     

  10. For the Pimento Cheese: 

  11. “Great pimento cheese is all about spice. Red peppers and hot sauce are essential to cutting through the richness of the cream cheese and Cheddar. You need that spicy zing to tame the fat. Mustard also steps in to balance the rich flavors.” —Chef Todd Richards

  12. Cook bacon in a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high 5 to 6 minutes or until crisp. Remove bacon from skillet and drain on paper towels; chop. Reserve 1 tablespoon bacon drippings, and set aside. Wipe the skillet clean.

  13. Return the skillet to medium. Add the blended oil and the red bell peppers. Cook until tender, about 2 minutes. Stir in the bacon drippings. Add the adobo sauce, and cook 2 minutes. Remove from the heat. Stir in the bacon, mayonnaise, vinegar, hot sauce, dry mustard, granulated garlic, and black pepper.

  14. Combine the Cheddar cheeses, cream cheese, and bell pepper mixture in a large bowl. Stir in the chives, and serve at room temperature.

Recipe excerpted with permission from Soul: A Chef’s Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipesby Todd Richards


Shrimp and Grits with Grits Crust and Shrimp Butter

An elevated take on battered shrimp

Ingredients

    • 1 1⁄2 pounds head-on, unpeeled large raw shrimp

    • 1 cup (8 ounces) whole buttermilk

    • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

    • 1⁄4 teaspoon lemon zest (from 1 lemon)

    • Pinch of red pepper flakes

    • 1⁄2 cup uncooked instant grits or polenta

    • 1 teaspoon kosher salt

    • 1⁄4 teaspoon granulated onion

    • 1⁄4 teaspoon granulated garlic

    • 1⁄4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

    • 1 cup (8 ounces) blended olive oil

    • Lemon wedges

  • Shrimp Butter

    • 1 teaspoon blended olive oil

    • 3 ounces shrimp shells (about 1½ cups) (from 1½ pounds raw shrimp)

    • 1 tablespoon dry white wine

    • 2 garlic cloves, minced

    • 1 thyme sprig

    • 1 pound (2 cups) unsalted butter, softened

    • 1 teaspoon kosher salt

    • ½ teaspoon lemon zest (from 1 lemon)


Preparation

  1. Peel and devein the shrimp, leaving the heads on. Reserve the shells to make the Shrimp Butter.

  2. Combine the buttermilk, Worcestershire sauce, lemon zest, and red pepper flakes in a medium bowl or large ziplock plastic freezer bag. Add the shrimp. Cover or seal, and refrigerate 15 minutes.

  3. Stir together the grits, salt, granulated onion, granulated garlic, and black pepper in a shallow dish.

  4. Remove the shrimp from the marinade; discard marinade. Heat the oil in a skillet over medium. Dredge the shrimp in the grits mixture, and toss to coat. Fry shrimp, in 2 batches, until the shrimp are done and the crust is golden brown, about 2 to 3 minutes per side. Drain the shrimp onto a plate lined with paper towels. Serve with Shrimp Butter and lemon wedges.

  5. Note: Using head-on shrimp is essential to providing excellent shrimp flavor to a dish. Some people might find it difficult to see the head on the plate. In that case, cook the shrimp with the heads on and remove them before plating.


     

  6. For the Shrimp Butter:

  7. Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed medium stockpot over medium. Add the shrimp shells, and cook, stirring often, 2 minutes. Add the wine, garlic and thyme. Cook, stirring constantly, 30 seconds. Remove from the heat. Remove and discard the thyme sprig.

  8. Transfer the shrimp shell mixture to the bowl of a heavy-duty electric stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the butter and salt. Beat on medium-high speed until the mixture is creamy, about 2 minutes. Press the mixture through a fine wire-mesh strainer into a bowl using the back of a spoon. Discard solids.

  9. Stir the lemon zest into the butter mixture. Transfer the shrimp butter to an airtight container, and refrigerate until ready to use. Makes 2 cups.

Recipe excerpted with permission from Soul: A Chef’s Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipesby Todd Richards


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