Five Southern Kitchen Magicians
Some of our favorite chefs share their stories, their inspirations, and their prized recipes.
Birmingham's pioneering pastry chef has been combining European technique with Southern soul for 34 years. Dol, as she's affectionately known, has been Frank Stitt's pastry ninja since shortly after he first opened Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham. She now oversees the desserts in all four of his restaurants.
Dolester Miles' Lemon Meringue Tart
Recipe: Miles' Lemon Meringue Tart
"My mother showed me how to make meringues, how to make a good graham cracker crust," Miles says. "I started baking brown sugar pound cakes when I was 15 years old with her recipe." Over the decades, Stitt has offered guidance in French and Italian technique, and now Miles leads a team of cooks—she is quick to point out it's not a solo effort—in preparing enough desserts to feed 400 people each day.
Christensen grew up surrounded by food: Her father, a truck driver, would drape freshly made strands of pasta over chair backs and broom handles, and her parents cooked dinner nearly every night. In college, she often threw dinner parties, and fell in love with hosting people. That background drives this beloved chef to nurture her business—and her diners—with a deep sense of hospitality. Not yet 40, Christensen oversees 250 employees, from Poole's Diner, where people pack into banquettes for the richest, gooiest mac and cheese in the land, to Death & Taxes—her first real foray into fine dining—with its flame-licked oysters, whole roasted fish, and 93-day aged beef. And we get the sense she's just hitting her stride.
Christensen's Buttermilk Spoon Bread with Spaghetti Squash
Inspired by her grandmother's cornbread dressing and her mother's resourcefulness, Christensen added spaghetti squash to cornbread to create this custardy side. "My mom could make a meal out of an empty pantry, and that inspires me to look at ingredients in new ways."
Recipe: Buttermilk Spoon Bread with Spaghetti Squash
In three short years, this up-and-comer has gone from cooking at pop-up restaurants to being the Noodle Queen of Nashville. She didn't start cooking professionally until she was nearly 40. After a career in film production in California, she moved back to the South and began tinkering with ramen (albeit with a healthy dose of collards and field peas). "My "kitchen" experience is based on being a home cook" and taking pride in doing a lot with a little, she explains.
Gavigan's Savory Refrigerator Soup
When she was a child, her grandmother would visit for a week at a time and turn the scraps—a rind of parmesan, a cauliflower stump—into a stew she called "refrigerator soup" at the end of the week. To this day, Sarah revels in what she terms "kitchen sink challenges," where she raids her pantry to create a feast for 10. That ingenuity has fueled the success of her ramen venture Otaku South—and earned her serious respect.
Recipe: Refrigerator Soup
John Besh's pastry ace has branched out with her own New Orleans cafe. When you ask her about the rise of female chefs, her response raises a good point: "Why should it be such a big deal?" Quality is quality. In fact, all of her sous chefs are women. "I've never known women not to be in a kitchen," she says. Fields is responsible for empowering a whole new generation of chefs. "I have the best team in the world surrounding me. Most of my cooks are mothers, and they are all 100% heart."
Fields' Blackberry-and-Bourbon Cobbler
Though she's made her name with fantastical sugar creations as the Executive Pastry Chef for John Besh's Restaurant Group, that's not her only job. At her newly opened bakery and café, Willa Jean, she cooks the way she learned from her mother and her two grandmothers, Audrey and Willa Jean: simple, straightforward, honest. "You can't hide behind technique. It's either good or it's not."
Recipe: Blackberry-and-Bourbon Cobbler
Asha Gomez personifies the modern South. Born in the southern Indian state of Kerala, she claims Atlanta as home. Though the Georgia capital, a modern port city by way of its heavily trafficked airport, has its share of global influence, Gomez stands apart. She reinterprets flavors using things native to both lands—catfish, okra, rice. She now runs Spice to Table, a patisserie near the new Krog Street Market, where she accents traditional recipes with next-generation flair (carrot cake with cardamom), and leads cooking classes to initiate people to her two Souths.
Gomez's Country Captain
This chicken dish, infused with the curry flavor of garam masala, coriander, and turmeric, originated in the port city of Savannah, the result of the spice trade and a naval captain's memories of India. Asha Gomez's Country Captain demonstrates the interconnectedness of southern India and Atlanta—her two Souths.
Recipe: Country Captain