By Lisa Cericola
August 19, 2020
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Southern food is often thought of as fixed in time—as if there were only one correct way to bake biscuits or cook grits. We can find these long-held cooking tenets in weathered recipe cards, in the margins of spiral-bound cookbooks, and in our treasured memories of family members long gone. But as the following talented cooks from across the South show, there is a way to marry the past and the present. And it’s delicious. In Tennessee, Mee McCormick makes gluten-free fried chicken that rivals any traditional recipe. In Kentucky, Samantha Fore has earned a following for her vibrant Sri Lankan-meets-Southern dishes. And in Texas, Vianney Rodriguez gives Tex-Mex food the respect and recognition it deserves. Through cookbooks, food blogs, pop-up restaurants, and more, all seven of our 2020 Cooks of the Year are expanding the way we define Southern food and making sure that there’s a seat at the table for everyone. —Lisa Cericola

Courtesy of Jerrelle Guy

Jerrelle Guy

Jerrelle Guy doesn’t like measuring cups. “That’s never been how anyone in my family has cooked,” Guy says. “Everything gets eyeballed. You phone a relative to see what secret thing they added to make it so good, and usually it’s whatever they had on hand and thought to throw into the mix.”   

In Black Girl Baking, her 2018 debut cookbook, Guy weaves recipes for Baked Buttermilk Beignets and Orange Peel Pound Cake with stories of her childhood in Lantana, Florida. Her recipes may be nostalgic, but they are modern, too, offering gluten-free or vegan options. Like her inclusive approach to baking, she views the kitchen as a safe space to grapple with complicated questions of race, politics, and identity. Guy, also a food stylist and photographer, worked with author Toni Tipton-Martin on her latest cookbook, Jubilee, which celebrates two centuries of African American cuisine and won a James Beard Award this year. “It was a collaboration made in heaven,” says Tipton-Martin.

“The food I ate growing up makes me who I am, and while I shift and adjust to fit the current culture I’m a part of, I’m still bringing my past, my cravings, my memories, and what I find comforting and fulfilling along with me,” Guy says. “Everything gets measured against and filtered through that.”

—Zoe Denenberg

Johnny Autry; Prop and Food Styling: Charlotte L. Autry

Jerrelle Guy's Salted Irish Cream-Apple Crostata is a must bake this fall.

Clay Williams

Samantha Fore

Like many Southern chefs, Samantha Fore has devoted fans who adore her fried chicken and shrimp and grits. But for Fore, those familiar dishes are gateways to expand people’s palates and minds. At Tuk Tuk Sri Lankan Bites, her traveling pop-up based in Lexington, Kentucky, the chicken is brined in a buttermilk-curry mixture and the shrimp is flavored with lemongrass, ginger, and lime and served over coconut rice grits.

Since Tuk Tuk opened in 2016, Fore has hooked Lexington and other cities across the country with her original takes on Sri Lankan food. She was born in Kentucky to Sri Lankan parents, so dishes that blend Southern and South Asian ingredients and cooking techniques come naturally to her.

Tuk Tuk does more than serve delicious food. Fore says it also translates her experience as a first-generation American and helps break down barriers people put up around things that seem different or “other.” “When you’re a kid and your parents are from another country, by the time you’re cognizant of it, there is a feeling of othering: ‘Your backpack smells weird,’ or ‘Your food looks strange.’ ” she says. “If I can keep kids from feeling the way I did when I was in elementary school, that’s enough of a mission for me.”

Through the pop-up, a cookbook in development, and other projects on the horizon, Fore aims to introduce people to new flavors and cultures while showing them that we all have more in common than we might think. “If I can push those borders just a little bit, then it’s all worth it.”

—Lisa Cericola

Johnny Autry; Prop and Food Styling: Charlotte L. Autry

Samantha Fore's Poached-Shrimp Curry with Coconut Rice Middlins is a Southeast Asian spin on shrimp and grits.

Heather Muro

Mee McCormick

At Mee McCormick’s restaurant, Pinewood Kitchen & Mercantile, a sign out front illustrates the establishment’s philosophy: real food for everyone, regardless of your ability to pay. Since it opened in 2015 in the town of Nunnelly, Tennessee, dishes like fried fish and grass-fed beef burgers have won over locals and attracted people to Pinewood just to eat. It’s not easy to find comfort food that can be made gluten free, dairy free, or vegan.

Years of chronic health issues led McCormick on a path to learn about the role that food plays in our wellbeing. She and her husband, Lee, opened Pinewood to accommodate special diets and expand the definition of “healthy eating.” “Chefs should not look at food allergies as a burden but as an opportunity to try new things and create good food that will nourish people,” she says.

And as the sign says, a lack of money isn’t an issue either. “If a guest can’t pay, the staff will offer a friendly, ‘We got this today!’ ” she says.

In addition to running the restaurant and a biodynamic farm, McCormick published her second cookbook, My Pinewood Kitchen. She says, “I am fueled by gratitude for my own good health and inspired to help people discover their own paths to wellness through supportive food.”

—Patricia S. York

Johnny Autry; Prop and Food Styling: Charlotte L. Autry

Mee McCormick's Pinewood Fried Chicken is gluten-free and so delicious.

Denny Culbert

Melissa Martin

“Everything happens in the kitchen,” says Melissa Martin. White beans stewing, fish frying, a cast of aunts and uncles rotating in and out to pick up fish or drop off a bucket of crabs. For Martin, these are the daily rituals that measure a life on the bayou.

The Cajun cooking of Martin’s childhood in Chauvin, Louisiana, was simply seasoned and heavily rooted in seafood. After gaining a culinary education in restaurant kitchens in California’s Napa Valley, she turned to a source closer to home. “I wanted to let people in on all the food I grew up eating,” says Martin.

Accordingly, the tasting menu at Mosquito Supper Club (Martin’s New Orleans restaurant) promises home-style Cajun cooking with a touch of sophistication. “At some point, you’ve got to get rid of the Mason jars and give people wineglasses,” she says, laughing. At each nightly seating, diners enjoy long, leisurely meals of dishes like oyster soup and crab cakes.

Above all, Martin views her restaurant and her new cookbook—Mosquito Supper Club—as avenues to tell the story of Louisiana’s bayous. “Let’s talk about this little town in South Louisiana. Let’s talk about coastal erosion and the environment and running a zero-waste, sustainable restaurant,” she says. “Really, the story is the most important part.”

—Zoe Denenberg

Johnny Autry; Prop and Food Styling: Charlotte L. Autry

Melissa Martin's Lagniappe Bread Rolls are the perfect addition to any dinner table.

Gretchen Bell

Coby Ming & Damaris Phillips

If one word defines the creative team of Damaris Phillips and Coby Ming, it is “connection.” There is the connection between the two chefs who are longtime friends and business partners, the connection to the farmers they work with, and the connection with their guests.

The two met more than 20 years ago while working at Lynn’s Paradise Café in Louisville, Kentucky. Although their careers took them in different directions (Ming worked as a chef in several local restaurants; Phillips was a winner on the television series Food Network Star and got her own show, Southern at Heart), they kept in touch and shared the same desire to take their culinary and hospitality experience on a different route. “After many years of talking about what we could do together, we decided to quit talking and start walking,” says Ming.

In 2019, Phillips and Ming launched the Bluegrass Supper Club—monthly ticketed events that celebrate community, regional history, and locally sourced food. Built on the concept that eating together should be fun, each supper club has a different theme and location around Louisville, which are both kept secret until two days before the event. Ticket holders may find themselves at a swanky 1950s cocktail hour eating Swedish meatballs and deviled eggs or at a casual Sunday supper with fried chicken and bourbon coleslaw. Since COVID-19 put a temporary halt on large gatherings, they have offered to-go picnic baskets for Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, date nights, and more.

Menus vary depending on the theme and what’s in season. Instead of telling the farmers what they want to prepare, Phillips and Ming rely on the growers to let them know what’s in season and build their menu from there. “Dining experiences used to be fun,” says Phillips, “People would spend hours dancing and talking—today it’s just eat and run.” To get people mingling, they set up diversions like an activity that included mystery gifts that could be unlocked only if the participants followed clues.

“Creating a relationship where none existed is so important to fostering understanding and empathy,” says Phillips. “If you can get people to share a meal and have fun together, you’ve got a good start,” adds Ming. 

—Patricia S. York

Johnny Autry; Prop and Food Styling: Charlotte L. Autry

Coby Ming and Damaris Phillips' Sumac Carrots with Feta Mousse and Crispy Panko combines familiar ingredients in a new way.

Jason David Page

Vianney Rodriguez

Vianney Rodriguez’s earliest culinary memory is watching her mother and abuelita (grandmother) roll out empanada dough. “They had a perfect rhythm going,” she says. “It was their little magic, and I always wanted to be a part of that.”

Rodriguez says she is a Texan through and through—“thank God for brisket and queso,” she says, laughing—but she’s also a proud first-generation Mexican American. “I would go to school and speak English, but as soon as I walked in the door at home, we would speak only Spanish,” she says. “It gave me the best of both worlds.”

Through her blog, Sweet Life, and her cookbooks, Latin Twist and The Tex-Mex Slow Cooker, she embraces all facets of her identity and celebrates the resourcefulness and cultural fusion of Tex-Mex food.

For Rodriguez, it all goes back to her grandmother’s kitchen. “Now that I have kids, I want those memories with them. It’s about the moments that lead up to the recipe.”

—Zoe Denenberg

Johnny Autry; Prop and Food Styling: Charlotte L. Autry

Vianney Rodriguez’s Concha Tres Leches Cake is easy to whip up thanks to a cake mix.