Todd Richards remembers that sausage biscuit well. He was only about 4 years old then, but he can still taste the peppery meat with its crisp edges and the flaky bread layers that left butter on his fingers. The biscuit itself was nothing special, just a pit stop meal at a Bob Evans restaurant, but for a Chicago-born kid on a road trip to the South, it was a revelation. “I didn’t know what biscuits were,” he says. “We were a cornbread family.”
Every summer, Richards and his parents drove from Chicago to Hot Springs, Arkansas, to visit his Auntie Wanda and Uncle Daniel. In Hot Springs, he ate peaches from roadside stands, drank iced sweet tea instead of hot tea, and realized that tomatoes weren’t always perfectly round like at the grocery store back home.
Whether in Chicago or on those family trips, Richards was surrounded by great cooks and eaters, especially his parents. He can still see his father stirring pots of richly spiced red beans, and he can still taste his mother’s crisp fried catfish as if it were yesterday. “Cooking was central to every party, every birthday, every holiday,” he says. “There was always so much food—you would have thought the President was coming.”
WATCH: Grits Dressing
Given his background, it’s not surprising that he would find his calling as a chef or that he would head South to do it. In 1993, he moved to Atlanta and worked up to a position in the kitchen at the Occidental Grand Hotel (now the Four Seasons), where he trained under the late Darryl Evans, one of the city’s most influential chefs.
In the decades that followed, Richards made his own imprint across the city’s food scene—from fine dining (White Oak Kitchen & Cocktails; The Ritz-Carlton, Atlanta and Buckhead) to the airport (as culinary director of One Flew South) to Richards’ Southern Fried (as the chef-owner of this hot-chicken spot in Krog Street Market).
In Soul: A Chef's Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipes, Richards’ first cookbook, the chef unites his restaurant training and the seasonal, down-home cooking he grew up eating. He says the two sides of his culinary background have a lot in common. “The way my dad made pot roast is no different from how I make osso buco. My mom fried up squares of leftover grits to make croutons. That’s something you see with a stiff price tag at restaurants today.”
Through stories and sophisticated, globally influenced dishes (Collard Green Ramen, Stone-Ground Grits Soufflés), the book defines what “soul” means to Richards. Of course, there’s a recipe for biscuits—flavored with black pepper and thyme. Old soul, meet new soul.