Southern cuisine has evolved beyond grits and biscuits to welcome traditional throwbacks and new, global influences.
Chef Joey Ward knows a thing or two about Southern cooking. A Georgia native himself, Ward recently opened two Atlanta restaurants simultaneously. Southern Belle and Georgia Boy were designed to complement each other; both serve Ward’s interpretation of Southern food, but Georgia Boy is a fine-dining experience, while Southern Belle is more laid-back. By pairing the two, Ward can serve a wider array of guests and also experiment more with his cooking. “Southern cooking is no longer antebellum cooking. It’s a melting pot,” he says.
But Ward’s interpretation of Southern food is wider ranging than the stereotypical shrimp and grits. His menu is replete with dishes like Szechuan-style sweet potatoes and Vietnamese grilled pork belly. “Vietnamese, Indian, Central American, and other populations are bringing their own flavors to our region,” Ward says. “So my approach is to be more open-minded.”
Over the last few years, many Southern-born chefs have been expanding the definition of what is included when we talk about the region’s cuisine. When Michael Gulotta opened Maypop and Mopho in New Orleans—a city historically steeped in global influences—he wanted to showcase that evolution.
“Native American, West African, French, Acadian, Isleños, German, Sicilian, Irish, and most recently Vietnamese and Honduran have all settled in New Orleans and along the surrounding coasts and bayous, and their influences continue to evolve the cuisine,” Gulotta says. “My two restaurants explore the melding of New Orleans and Vietnamese/Southeast Asian Cuisine.”
In addition to the well-known Caribbean and African influences present in Creole and Cajun food, the coastal South has been home to an increasingly large Southeast Asian population over the last few decades. These new arrivals and subsequent generations have made huge contributions to Southern food culture.
Gulotta explains that ingredients like lemongrass and ginger can bring a lightness to traditionally rich Creole dishes, while a bit of cheese added to a bao at brunch can taste just right. “We like to look at it as an evolution more than a fusion—a natural progression towards a greater New Orleans dining experience,” he says. “There is a rich and varied food history here that goes so far beyond the term Southern cuisine.”
Amy Mehrtens, the chef de cuisine at Copper Vine in New Orleans, has a similar take. “The techniques of Louisiana are so ingrained in the culture here that it becomes easy to play around with ingredients and still keep the Southern identity,” Mehrtens says. The restaurant fuses multiple influences on their menu, where guests find dishes like buttermilk pie with Vietnamese coffee ice cream. “Southern cuisine is a natural and intuitive cooking style,” Mehrtens explains. “Everything that grows together, goes together. Any cuisine can be fused with it.”
One of the reasons that these new cuisines meld so seamlessly is the deep well of Southern cooking on which chefs can draw. In recent years, Gulotta has seen more Southern cooks delve into their family heritages and recipes. They’re spending time with older relatives in an attempt to preserve the food of their childhoods, he says.
Michael Sichel, executive chef at Gabrielle in Charleston, South Carolina, and formerly of Galatoire’s in New Orleans, has been cooking classic Southern cuisine for almost 15 years. “Southern cuisine is a gumbo of history, respect, pride and origin,” he says. For Sichel, Southern cuisine is best represented by two flavor profiles: Creole, with its French and Spanish influences, sweetened with tomatoes and celery and finished with butter and wine; and Cajun, with bold, rich, layered tastes and textures. Both utilize the same spices to emphasize different outcomes, he says.
All styles of Southern cooking are enhanced by the myriad fresh ingredients that the region provides. Southern Belle and Georgia Boy’s offerings showcase local produce and livestock. “Wonderful farms across the South are not only bringing seasonality to our tables, but they are also looking at growing from a lens of inclusion with the many cultures,” Ward says.
For many chefs, the abundance is one of the most exciting aspects of Southern cooking. “Fresh, local ingredients have been the heart and soul of Southern food from the beginning,” Sichel says. Isaac Toups, chef and owner of Toups’ Meatery in New Orleans, has a similar approach. “The company motto is ‘as local as possible,’” he says. “Southern food, and especially Cajun food, has always been food from the land.”
With Southern food both reaching back to its past and also expanding to include new ingredients and cuisines, where does that leave its future? Sichel believes it’s shifting from traditional to interpretative. Gulotta predicts that the varied cuisines will continue to discover their common roots, pushing them to evolve in new and wonderful ways. But it may be Joey Ward who puts it best.
“I see muddy waters in terms of what ‘Southern’ cooking means, which is a great thing,” he says.