30 Incredible Women Moving Southern Food Forward
From chefs to writers, start-up founders to a pitmaster, women are writing Southern food’s next chapter.
New Orleans, Louisiana
In 1920, Simone Reggie’s grandfather came to the United States with nothing more than $18 and a family to feed. Just 10 years later, he owned two grocery stores in Louisiana. Today, Reggie has a photo of him that hangs in her own namesake market she opened last year on Oak Street in New Orleans’ Carrollton neighborhood. Inside shelves are stacked high with practical pantry staples and locally made items and bins brim with Louisiana-grown produce. Reggie has even hired an in-house chef, Ashley Roussel, for the market’s prepared foods counter, which offers dishes like Boiled Shrimp Salad and Lebanese Yogurt Sauce, a nod to Reggie’s heritage. With a focus on essentials and convenience rather than specialty items, she is creating a comeback for the independent neighborhood grocery.
What excites me about the future of Southern food: “I think Southern food is moving in a direction that merges traditional and global flavors. People are expanding on what they were raised eating at home and incorporating flavors they enjoy from travels, education, television, and other cuisines. Nina Compton at Compere Lapin is doing a great job of merging her St. Lucian heritage with ingredients that are available in the South. Kelly Fields is expanding on what people traditionally think of Southern food and expanding on that with fresh, local, seasonal ingredients.”
When Cheryl Day and her husband Griff opened Back in the Day Bakery in Savannah’s now-trendy Starland District, she wanted to be a part of the neighborhood just as much as she wanted to share her family-inspired recipes. One cinnamon bun at a time, she not only won over her neighbors, she has also brought new life to the area. Now, lines of art students, locals, and tourists start forming early in front of the cases displaying her Old-Fashioned Cupcakes umbrellaed by generous dollops of pastel icing and cups of stratified banana pudding—many with Day’s best-selling cookbooks in hand hoping for an autograph.
What excites me about the future of Southern food: “I think of Southern food as the great connector. In a single bite, Southern food invites conversations between old and new, young and old, rich and poor. I love to see how folks honor past traditions and reinterpret them in a new way.”
New Orleans, Louisiana
In a carriage house not much wider than a hallway packed with stoves and stacks of skillets, there’s a window that overlooks Sylvain’s courtyard filled with diners. Martha Wiggins passes by it back and forth, sautéing shrimp, directing dishes, and instructing staff. In New Orleans’ restaurant-filled French Quarter, few have become executive chefs at age 27; there are even fewer who are women or people of color. But while those statistics might make Wiggins unique, she sets herself and Sylvain apart with her work. While tradition reigns in this part of the city, Wiggins gives brightness and buoyancy to the heaviness of long-simmered classics.
What excites me about the future of Southern food: “I hope to see a continued effort in Southern food to get back to natural and local foods that honor the ingredients and soul of this regional cuisine. I would be excited to see more black-owned restaurants in the South that take steps to reclaim the dishes of a painful history and to be the ones to dictate the evolution of "soul food" to the rest of the country."
Julia Sullivan and Allie Poindexter
Created by business partners, chef Julia Sullivan and manager Allie Poindexter, Henrietta Red’s refreshing, polished vibe complimented by vegetable-and-seafood-centric dishes is a departure from the established Nashville dining scene—and it’s not just the noticeable absence of a hot chicken variation. The two met while working at farm-to-table cooking school space, Haven’s Kitchen, in New York City, but Nashville native Sullivan wanted to bring the techniques and style she had learned in lauded kitchens like Per Se and Blue Hill at Stone Barns back home. Sullivan name checks vegetable varieties on their menu while Poindexter pulls double duty as sommelier focusing on natural wines. Their oyster bar has made Henrietta Red Germantown’s go-to spot and won over Music City.
What excites me about Southern food: “[There is] a long tradition of a broad and diverse landscape that continues today. There is no true definition or capital, but there is an amazing collaboration that happens across cities, between makers, growers, chefs, restaurants, organizations, and publications. People cross-pollinate and share information in a way that I think makes our culinary scene quite progressive and interesting. Allie and I are just getting started and look forward to seeing how Southern food continues to evolve in my lifetime.”
Of course the Southern version of Blue Apron offers kits for cheese grits, chicken and dumplings, or pecan pie. But the Georgia-grown ingredients to make them? Those found their way into Peach Dish’s boxes after Judith Winfrey, the force behind Love is Love Farm, asked founder Hadi Irvani at a dinner party why he wasn’t using ingredients from local farms for his meal delivery company. Now, Winfrey is president of the Atlanta-based start-up, which provides meals with small farm-sourced items for recipes developed by Southern food figures like Pableaux Johnson, Nancie McDermott, and Sheri Castle.
Durham, North Carolina
While finding the best price for a package of strawberries or a juicy tomato might be easy at the grocery store, the story behind how it got there is much more complicated. When Palestinian-American Nadeen Bir interned for Student Action with Farmworkers as a student at College of Charleston, she realized that the people who harvest food face brutal and unforgiving the conditions. Now, she is the Advocacy and Organization Director of that same nonprofit where she brings students and North Carolinians together with farmworkers and their families to find solutions for problems like education and healthcare access.
What excites me about the future of Southern food: “In these challenging times, I know I turn to Southern food for the traditional comfort that it offers. It is even better when we can celebrate newer immigrant influences on that food and give credit to its African-American roots. I am excited about a future that recognizes, amplifies, and gives thanks to the contributions of migrant workers to Southern food production whether it is the hand-picked buckets of sweet potatoes and tomatoes, satchels of peaches, or the pork and chicken at our cookouts.”
Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina
The topics in Victoria Bouloubasis’ articles and documentaries can be daunting ones to approach or understand from refugee resettlement to urban food deserts. But the way she focuses her figurative and literal lens on her subjects—from a group of Mexican line-cooks living together in North Carolina to a brigade of women butchers—brings them into a familiar focus.
What excites me about the future of Southern food: “There’s a reckoning happening in Southern food, and that’s what excites me most. There’s a beautiful collision happening now of traditions near and far, of different generations, of cultures and histories fusing together at the table. Through food, we’re openly dispelling this persistent myth of the South being a homogenous place. Instead, narrow tropes and one-sided narratives are being pushed aside for more empowering stories, ones that recognize the tough bits of history. And we’re sitting with that and listening to each other as we share food and ideas. Through that, amazing culinary talent is rising to the surface. We’re seeing first-generation Southerners do food on their terms, owning it. And slowly this is valued in our food culture. It’s refreshing.”
With her coffee shop and boutique City & State, Lisa Toro has become the micro mayor of Memphis’ Broad Avenue. Once a sleepy street with a few dive bars and warehouses, six blocks have been reimagined as an arts district. Toro’s business anchors the East end of the street and brings the city’s visitors to a new corner of town for high-end beans from roasters like Intelligentsia and locally made items in the adjoining shop. When Toro decided to start her newest project, The Liquor Store, a greasy spoon meets the Beverly Hills Hotel bar, she also decided to co-create a new investment fund for women entrepreneurs in Memphis like herself. Their first networking meeting drew double the attendance they expected.
The mile-high biscuits that food blogger and chef Erika Council sells at pop-ups around Atlanta have layers. She learned to make them from her grandmothers, Mildred Cotton Council (known as the legendary soul food-restaurant owner Mama Dip in Chapel Hill) and Geraldine Dortch who both fed those fighting for the Civil Rights Movement in North Carolina and their neighbors who didn’t have enough to eat during Jim Crow. Now, Council continues their legacy by sharing stories on her blog Southern Soufflé and with her Sunday Supper Club where she brings guests together from different perspectives and backgrounds to find what unites them.
Over 100 restaurants and bars opened in Nashville this past year, but only a handful by women restaurateurs. One of them is Miranda Whitcomb Pontes and her restaurant Lulu, but it’s hardly her first venture in the Music City dining scene. Since opening the pioneering Frothy Monkey coffee shop in 2004, she’s also launched 12South neighborhood staples BurgerUp and Josephine along with a slew of other concepts in an environment that has almost become as competitive as college football. Now, Pontes serves as a mentor to other women wanting to enter the business through the Nashville Entrepreneur Center.
What excites me about the future of Southern food: "Growing up in North Louisiana, I was raised on traditional Southern food. Supper at 6 p.m. and it was always a meat and two or three just like Arnold’s Country Kitchen [in Nashville]. And there was pie. Chocolate, chess, or lemon. It’s nice to see in the South today that there is respect for tradition while incorporating healthier influences from all over the world. For me, I love restaurant concepts that offer Southern deliciousness with thoughtful, healthy ingredients. Something for everyone and as Lulu’s tagline says ‘Yes to all.’ A burger and a beer? Yes. A grain bowl full of veggies and green juice? Yes. A shot of tequila? Yes."
The new kid on the Square, tiny bistro St. Leo has brought big-name attention once again to Oxford, Mississippi’s food scene, but not for Southern standards its been known for in the past. St. Leo’s creator Emily Blount has combined her Mill Valley, California upbringing and New York City background together in the form of wood-fired pizzas, Mississippi produce dressed in Italian fashion, and a tailored space that transports customers to Brooklyn and Rome while staying grounded in Southern hospitality.
Charlotte, North Carolina
Most magazines focus on the latter end of the farm-to-table movement, but food journalist Keia Mastrianni wants to shift our attention to the fields our meals come from. As the co-founder and oral historian of the new indie zine Crop Stories, she is sharing Southern, agriculturally minded stories that bridge the divide between consumer and farmer while making issues that are often confined to trade journals accessible to anyone passionate and curious about their food sources. Each crop-themed issue (They’ve tackled sweet potatoes, winter squash, blueberries, and radishes so far.) include dispatches from growers, recipes, and a historical perspective behind each piece of produce.
What excites me about the future of Southern Food: “I’m excited about the inclusion of new voices and the increased willingness of publications, especially those that exist in the mainstream, to tackle the complex and uncomfortable issues that intersect at the table, like race and social justice. When Andre Gallant, Nicole Taylor, and I came together to publish the latest issue of Crop Stories, it was in the spirit of inclusion and truth-telling––to tell real stories from the agricultural South. I am excited to see more food stories that look critically at how food impacts culture and how a vibrant tapestry of cultures contribute to the Southern food conversation."
When Lauren Rhoades meets customers at her farmers market booth in Jackson, Mississippi, older folks tell her about their grandmothers tending crocks of sauerkraut and Korean War Veterans come to sample her kimchi. With her line of fermented foods under the name Sweet and Sauer, including kombucha, pickles, and mustard, Rhoades is hoping to redevelop the knowledge and taste for good bacteria-infused foods in a new generation. After moving to Jackson from Denver, Colorado with the Food Corps program, Rhoades took Sweet and Sauer from a side project to a full-time business. Located inside The Hatch, a nonprofit business incubator in Jackson’s Midtown Arts District, she turns local produce into jarred products sold at independent grocery stores and cafes in central Mississippi.
What excites me about the future of Southern food: “I’m excited to see a wildness returning to Southern food. I’ve talked with older folks who fondly remember spending their childhood in the country roaming the woods, eating wild persimmons and mulberries, digging up sassafras root, chewing on medicinal plant leaves, and catching trout from the stream. These foods are incredibly nutrient dense with complex flavors that challenge our modern tendency towards salty and sweet. Thanks to a community of dedicated foragers, homesteaders, herbalists, and creative chefs, this way of eating is far from lost. This summer, one of the farmers at our local market was selling earthy chanterelles and branches of wild sumac berries that he had harvested from his property. He sold out! Wild food has always been a part of Southern food, and I can’t wait to see the ways it will continue to show up on restaurant menus and in our home kitchens.”
San Antonio, Texas
The title of pitmaster in the South is treated with heavy reverence, and almost always bestowed to men. The idea of it inevitably conjures mental images of figures like Aaron Franklin or Rodney Scott hoisting meat onto smokers with the ashes of their craft smeared on their skin. Pitmaster Laura Loomis knows she may not fit that archetype visually, but she lets her brisket and ribs at Two Bros. BBQ change that perception one customer at a time. Initially a cashier with no background in barbecue, Loomis augmented what she learned from Two Bros. owner Jason Dady with books, YouTube videos, and online forums. Now, she has hired and developed her own pit team and overhauled their process to create more consistency in their product.
What excites me about the future of Southern food: “The heritage of Southern Food is unmatched in American Cuisine. It’s fantastic that it has one foot in its historical preservation and one foot pushing the envelope to places it’s never been.”
Keyser, West Virginia
The more than 9,000 women farmers in the West Virginia contribute $62 million to the state’s economic impact, but West Virginia State University extension agent Stacey Huffman is working to make the number bigger. Huffman and the University’s Women in Agriculture team hosted the first conference dedicated to giving women farmers the education, connections, and tools they need to overcome the obstacles facing small-scale growers and producers today.
Lisa Helfman and Dr. Shreela Sharma
While getting a mealy apple or an overripe avocado may not be the end of the world, for working-class families living on low wages, spending money on fruits and vegetables often isn’t worth the risk. Others might not have the cooking background to know which ones to pick up at the store or how to prepare them at home. After Lisa Helfman saw the impact of introducing more produce early into her children’s diet, she partnered with Dr. Shreela Sharman, a nutrition expert and epidemiology professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health, to create Brighter Bites, a nonprofit that increases access to fresh, quality fruits and vegetables. Along with their team, the nonprofit distributes around 30 pounds of produce per week to low-income families and gives them educational tools on their benefits and how to eat them. Since its start in 2012, Brighter Bites has provided more than 14 million pounds of food, expanded to more cities in Texas, and started a program in New York City.
What excites me about the future of Southern food: “The future of our health and that of our children's is in fresh food, especially fruits and veggies. When we cook with fresh food, not only is it delicious and healthy, but we know what is in our food and where it has come from. Somewhere along the way we have lost the art of cooking and eating every day with fresh ingredients. Southern food can take us back to our roots and teach the country on what we can do with fresh food every single day.”
Chelsey Conrad and Cynthia Wong
Charleston, South Carolina
When Butcher and Bee opened in 2011, it was imagined as a sandwich shop that paid no mind to conventions and put more thought toward seasonal, local ingredients. Now, Helmed by Executive Chef Chelsey Conrad and Executive Pastry Chef Cynthia Wong, the two have since turned it into a destination for inventive dishes that blend Southern perspective with global influences in a city with more than enough dining choices. From a fried chicken sandwich topped with preserved lemon aioli and green harissa to a bucket of ice cream drumsticks made with waffle-flavored ice cream, Conrad and Wong’s menu makes room for new interpretations and a sense of humor.
What excites us about the future of Southern food:
“The opportunity to create a modern and feminist vision of the Southern matriarch, through education, hospitality, and cuisine.” – Chelsey Conrad
“The diversity of cultures and viewpoints. Food here is a song we sing about home, and it's beautiful to have different voices.” – Cynthia Wong
Raleigh, North Carolina
For Birds of Avalon guitarist and chef Cheetie Kumar, her passions for music and food live in harmony. So it’s no surprise to find that her restaurant Garland is downstairs from the venue, Kings, which she co-owns with her bandmate and husband. Although the menu at Garland is pan-Asian, it draws specifically from Kumar’s Indian heritage and the cooking style she learned from her mother prepared with ingredients she sources from North Carolina farmers. Being a touring musician helped Kumar inform the three-story building, also home to Neptune’s Bar downstairs, as a neo visitors center that welcomes bands and tourists to the city’s burgeoning downtown while also expanding the flavors of Raleigh’s dining scene.
What excites me about the future of Southern food: “I feel a culinary convergence coming on. The reemergence of small farms discovering forgotten heirloom varieties and making it easier for us to have access to responsibly grown Southern staples is a boon to professional and home cooks. Add to this an influx of migration from other parts of the country and world, and interesting markets and restaurants emerge. These influences are already leading to adventurous renditions of the Southern table. I think it will inject an exciting energy in the evolution of Southern food and what we place under that umbrella. The already richest food culture in the country is bound to stay on the forefront by making it possible for our smaller cities to grow in tandem with an exciting cultural and culinary evolution.”
Charleston, South Carolina
The split personality of Chef Sean Brock’s McCrady’s and McCrady’s Tavern, one part envelope-pushing, tasting-menu-only experience and one part classic Franco-American gastropub, appeals to Pastry Chef Katy Keefe’s dessert philosophy that she learned baking with her mother: get creative when you have to and appreciate the classics. As the overseer of the sweeter offerings at both restaurants, Keefe creates historically informed modern marvels like Foiechamacallit, cured foie enrobed in peanut chocolate with puffed rice and caramel, on one side while serving a perfected, no-fuss slice of French Silk Pie at the other.
What excites me about the future of Southern food: “I’m excited about rediscovering heritage recipes: Huguenot Torte, Lady Baltimore Cake, Bitter orange marmalade. There are cookbooks from the 1800’s that have such good recipes in them.”
Sara Camp Milam and Osayi Endolyn
Oxford, Mississippi and Gainesville, Florida
From Montgomery, Alabama’s Korean restaurant culture to the history of Jello salads in rural Appalachia and poetry about Koolickles, the Southern Foodways Alliance’s journal, Gravy, has become one of the most important documents of Southern food culture. During their tenures, Editor-in-Chief Sara Camp Milam and Deputy Editor Osayi Endolyn have developed the magazine and its sister podcast as an open-door platform where Southern food can be both celebrated and investigated through honest and complicated stories by writers and artists of all backgrounds. Recently, Milam co-authored the SFA’s Guide to Cocktails, a compendium of recipes that reveal a drinkable version of Southern history, while Endolyn continues her Gravy column “Missed Cues,” which explores the intersections of food and identity.
What excites me about the future of Southern food: “I constantly interrogate what it means for food to be Southern. I'm excited that the definition is never static on the plate. I love that people from myriad backgrounds choose to describe their food as Southern, much as many choose to describe themselves as American. At the same time, there is still a struggle to extend credit to the countless West African and African American cooks who so deeply shaped this culinary narrative, and to extend opportunities to their descendants today. That tension, for me, is a necessary reckoning and an exciting opening. As an editor, the future of Southern food is a media landscape that chooses to walk through that open door—it's one that lights the path for others coming afterward.” - Osayi Endolyn
Once known more as a comfort food capital offering tourists Southern classics at old-school institutions, Savannah has become a part of the national dining conversation thanks to the return of Chef Mashama Bailey and the opening of her restaurant, The Grey in 2015. Since then, Bailey has created a menu that truly reflects the city’s culinary history (especially contributions from West Africa) with hints at its future, which propelled The Grey to win Eater’s coveted Best Restaurant spot of 2017. Using the recipes and writings of Edna Lewis to inform her latest reiteration of dishes, Bailey is bringing new relevance to Lewis’ work while carving out a space for her own modern interpretation.
Melissa Martin’s ventures into New Orleans’ restaurant scene have never been orthodox whether it’s her weekly dinner parties under the name Mosquito Supper Club or her micro-oyster bar setup as one of the vendors in the St. Roch Market. But neither was Martin’s upbringing in Chauvin, Louisiana deep in Cajun country where her family and their community came together to share and cook the bounty of the swamps and farms around them. While Martin wants to share the joy of the dishes that flavored her childhood with both New Orleans locals and tourists, she now feels an urgency to preserve them as more and more of Louisiana’s bayous and the surrounding land go underwater due to rising sea levels and erosion of the Mississippi Delta. One of her latest projects offers guests the opportunity to rent a floating houseboat in Atchafalaya Basin where Martin serves a meal prepared with the crabs, shrimp, and fish caught from the same water.
What excites me about the future of Southern food: “The new movement to reclaim our food chain, new farmers with progressive practices and the return of simple food. More and more people are moved to the simplicity of real food. Seasonality, sustainability and the movement to put honest ingredients on a plate that support farming families is a return to reality. People are demanding that their food be clean and honest. This is the guiding philosophy behind Mosquito Supper Club, simple food served with the best seasonal ingredients while putting a face and story on our ingredients and supporting a community of fishers, farmers and bakers.”
Although the female butcher remains an anomaly, Texas-native Julia Poplawsky is working to create a new kind of squad with cleavers in hand. Standing at 5'2", Poplawsky eventually convinced a head butcher to take her on as an assistant, and soon she found her way to San Francisco’s 4505 Meats cutting pieces of beef nearly the same size as her. Back in Austin, she developed Dai Due’s whole-animal butchery program, but instead of continuing on in the cutting room she decided to create a classroom. Her nonprofit Central Texas Meat Collective offers workshops that demystify the art of whole-animal butchering and empower students, many of whom are women, to prepare proteins in a sustainable, cost-effective way.
When Cynthia Daniels relocated to Memphis from Atlanta after she had lost her job as a talent recruiter at a nonprofit, she found her future in the city’s food scene. As the president of the Memphis Urban League Young Professionals, she noticed that the initial flow of customers for black-owned restaurants started to slow to a trickle after the enthusiasm of a grand opening was gone. Daniels saw some success in assisting chefs and owners with their social media presence, but she wanted to connect them to a bigger campaign. She launched Memphis Black Restaurant Week as a way to bring in new audiences and bolster the community. Immediately, it generated $80,000 for participants. Now, Black Restaurant Weeks are held in seven other cities including Richmond, Birmingham, and St. Louis.
What excites me about the future of Southern food: “Southern Food will always have character and soul. It combines all of the best ingredients and seasonings that make you feel like you're wrapped up in the biggest hug with each bite.”
When Liz Broussard’s Jackson, Mississippi-based fellowship with AmeriCorps’ Food Corps program was finished, some expected the New Hampshire-native would head back North. Instead, she chose to grow her roots in Jackson and continue her work teaching students about healthy eating. As the coordinator of Mississippi Food Justice Collaborative (a part of the National Center for Appropriate Technology), Broussard works with groups like Mississippi Farm to School Network and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians to increase healthy food access for disadvantaged families and children.
What excites me about the future of Southern food: ”I'm excited to honor the stories of people as much as dishes, recipes, and flavors. Food is culture and an expression of people and place. I am excited about how food is being used as a vehicle for social change by communities of color throughout the South. I am excited about the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and the tribal members who are taking back control over their local food system, reconnecting with the land, and growing fresh, healthy, organic food. I'm excited about Mileston Co-op in Holmes County, Mississippi, that is growing more than just greens and purple hull peas, but growing the next generation of farmers and engaged community leaders.”
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Since writing her James Beard Award-nominated book Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South in 2006, Dr. Marcie Ferris has continued to set more seats at the table for Southerners to reveal their contributions to Southern food, especially those whose stories are rarely shared. With the two-year academic theme “Food For All: Local and Global Perspectives,” The University of North Carolina chose Dr. Ferris to co-chair the campus-wide effort to discuss, research, and document food justice and access.
What excites me about the future of Southern food: “The vibrancy and vitality of Southern food studies across our region is tremendously exciting to me. Every day I see our students and faculty deeply engaged with chefs, farmers, food entrepreneurs, community leaders, and activists dedicated to ensuring both a healthy, sustainable, local food system that is accessible to all citizens, and to documenting the rich history and experience of the South’s expressive culinary cultures. We are clearly one of the strongest models of food scholarship and community engagement in the nation.”