Southern food can be hyper-regional. Cooks season collards differently in Mississippi than they do in Tennessee. Barbecue styles shift from one side of a state to another. And then there are grits, which are often a matter of individual tastes.
The chef Greg Collier and his wife, Subrina, who own the lauded Leah & Louise in Charlotte and this spring will open a reboot of their popular breakfast restaurant, Uptown Yolk, both grew up in Memphis. He ate the savory grits his grandmother served with country ham; she lived in a household where sugar was an essential ingredient in the grits pot. “There’s a time and place for both of them,” Greg says. “Like when I’m cooking for her family.”
But when it comes to one of his favorite brunch dishes—fried catfish and chowchow over grits—he likes an extra creamy version, mixing white and yellow grits (the former for texture, and the latter for sweetness and color) and simmering them with milk, stock, and plenty of butter. He pays as much attention to the fish. Drawing from his training at culinary school in Arizona, he adds smoked paprika and two kinds of pepper to buttermilk before soaking the fillets overnight, and dredges them in a combination of flour, cornmeal, and cornstarch to give the crust crispness and flavor.
The real star of the dish, though, is a chowchow made with field peas and fired up with spicy red Fresno peppers. “With fried food or grits, your palate sort of falls asleep,” he says. “This is like putting hot sauce on fish. It’s fish with vinegar and spice.”
The Colliers keep their Memphis roots, influenced by West African and Native traditions, in mind when they develop their menus. “We want to pay homage to our ancestors and Black culture and Black foodways, but with a new look that isn’t so traditional,” Greg says. Still, at the end of the day, he wants his dishes to remain familiar, like his fish and grits. “When I’m cooking food,” he says, “I want my aunt or my mom or pops to get it.”