We're always excited to be introduced to a number of creatives across verticals here at Athleisure Mag. A few weeks ago, we got an advanced copy of Soul: A Chef's Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipes and from the selected dishes, colorful imagery and the voice of Chef Todd Richards, we had to interview him for this month's issue. He brings to life what soul food means as a genre and how it can be interpreted within its classic dishes as well as being utilized in other dishes that are not commonly thought to align with this category. Chef Richards is self-taught, passionate about educating others about the food and bringing the love and community that surrounds it.
ATHLEISURE MAG: How did you know that you wanted to be a chef and what was your journey to getting there?
TODD RICHARDS: I really knew that I wanted to be a chef when my first job was being a butcher at Kroger in Atlanta and people at the meat counter would ask me questions about how to prepare things. I figured that I needed to know how to prepare those items that I was serving so I started studying and I thought, "this is really cool." There was someone across the street that needed someone to grill so I thought, if I can cut the meat, then I should be able to grill. So I started working there and then I never really looked back. The creative process of learning how to butcher and preparing meat satisfied that creative need that I had.
AM: You've been on Iron Chef and have 2 James Beard Nominations for Best Chef in the Southeast, what do these accolades mean to you and what was it like being on the show and receiving these honors?
TR: It's such a great honor to be on Iron Chef and to be a James Beard Award Nominee but it doesn't just stop there it really fuels me to be even better, and I think that that has always been the catalyst that I got from my parents. What happens right now is great, but you always have to keep striving regardless of how many awards that you may win.
AM: Tell us about Richards' Southern Fried at Krog Street Market in Atlanta.
TR: Well Richards' Southern Fried is a chicken walkup. I really wanted to do Fried Chicken because mainly at the Ritz Carlton, it was one of the most popular dishes that we served - imagine that you're at the Ritz, one of the most luxurious hotels and that's what people are eating! We put that on the menu and people went crazy!
We also entered that recipe into a couple of Fried Chicken competitions and we won those as well. I knew that we had something really good going on, and it was like, we need to do this because people always ask about it. That's how Southern Fried started.
AM: How do you define Soul food and why is that an area you decided to focus on as a chef?
TR: Well the first thing is that soul food is only defined by 1950's/1960's just in that genre of food. It was only in that time period that there was an African American contribution in that area not before and then not after. Really it's a misnomer of the technically driven cuisine that soul food is. Most people do not understand it that way, but if you think about it, how in the hell do you make chitlins taste good - you have to have skill to make them good and to make something like collard greens taste good. Those things are all technically skilled recipes and I believe that soul food has the same place as French cuisine or Japanese cuisine.
AM: With your cookbook being available, what was the thought behind creating Soul?
TR: I wanted readers to know that soul food is always progressing. Soul food, especially in African American culture, is not just one straight society and there are a lot of different variations in our culture and in our food that we're known for. If you take the ingredients and explore them, in different manners and in understanding the technique, there are different ways that we are talking about in true American cuisine that have techniques from all around the world, but is distinctly, African American cooking in taste.
AM: When we flipped through your cookbook, we were struck with the Collard Green Pesto as we're fans of pesto - looking through the offered recipes there are classics, twists on a classic as it pertains to soul food as well as taking dishes that are not in this area of food and adding soul to it - how do you go about doing that?
TR: When you think about collard greens that our grandmothers put on the stove - the way that they approached it with the onions and braising the pork and things like that - it was always a technical cuisine. So when you look at other cuisines around the world, it's always starting with the simplest of ingredients and how we just do them correctly without destroying the integrity of them.
When you look at collard greens and why it makes sense for a pesto, it stands up well to oil, it loves vinegar, creams and stuff like that. So it makes sense that as a leafy vegetable that it would work in a dish like that.
AM: If you had to choose 3 meals that you would cook over a weekend, what would they be that are in your book?
TR: Well, fortunately, we grow a lot of food in our home so right now we're growing a lot of tomatoes - so definitely tomatoes! Sliced tomatoes with a little vinaigrette and all the flowers that we still have held over from the winter - like brussel sprout flowers. The next thing would be my mom's Fried Catfish because I don't think that there is anything better than dipping it in your own hot sauce. The way that she always prepared the catfish, it was crispy and you just dipped the catfish in the hot sauce and all this vinegar, pepper and using garlic and onions in there as well which has really great sensibility. And because I love to have a cocktail, strawberries are in season right now - the Strawberry Rum Cooler is a great way to use strawberries. Don't get those really pretty ones, get the ugly ones that are kind of soft and when you bite into them the juice just runs down your chin. Those are the strawberries that you want for a Strawberry Rum Cooler!
AM: What are your 3 favorite meals that are in this book?
TR: It is so hard because the book is divided by ingredients. In this period of time right now, onions, spring lamb is available - I use that as a reference because my answers today will be different then when it is in the fall when there are collard greens. Seafood is universal so you can enjoy that any time. But just to understand that we are at the end of collard green season so having the Collard Green Pesto with Poached Oysters might be at the end of that season but pairing it with tomatoes - it will make it make more sense.
AM: What's on your playlist when you're cooking?
TR: The great thing is that in the back of the book, there actually is a playlist and on Spotify there is a soul food playlist as well that we put up. And growing up with my parents, we were the hospitality center of our entire family - every birthday, holiday, Christmas party - I think that we even had a bah mitzvah at our house. It didn't matter we loved any reason to celebrate and food and music were intertwined together. They had the same exact place. When we were talking about soul as a cultural reference, that's one thing that African Americans - that we do. We want everything to look good visually, to taste good and to hear our passion in cooking. That to me is why I put the soundtrack in the back of the book.
AM: We love the trend where cookbooks have transcended to being lifestyle cookbooks. It feels like we're literally hearing you share your personal life as you talk about mentors and your method - was that a conscious choice?
TR: As a chef who probably has hundreds of cookbooks - I know where they all are. I still read Larousse Gastronomique - one of the bibles of cookbooks that has over 10,000 recipes. But for a consumer, we have to make cookbooks relevant so that people can continue cooking and do it with their kids. Today they are so phone sensitive and are connected to their devices. I wanted to make sure that people can always connect to the cookbook. It's as easy as when you put that song on and someone says, "man remember when you came to the house and we started smoking some ribs and we played that song from the book," or visually, you see some ugly tomatoes at the store and everyone is walking past and I know that I can make the best dish with those tomatoes. Those are the reasons why I wanted to put all those things in the book.
This is the gift that my parents gave me - being prideful and our culture which is the other sense that they gave me. Reading is so important to understanding us as a people and we have to produce things that people visually want to understand so that they can get out of their own stereotypical kind of minds and to just indulge themselves into delicious food.
AM: When you're not cooking in Atlanta, where can we find you grabbing drinks/dinner, where do you shop and what do you do in your personal time?
TR: People ask me that question all the time and it is a really difficult question to answer in the sense that I work so damn much - I like to go home! But there are a lot of good chefs that I just gravitate to and a number of them are good friends of mine. In Athens, Jerry Slater just opened The Expat. Jerry and I have had a long history in working together off and on. I look at Guy Wong who's another great friend of mine who has Ton Ton and Miso Izakaya. I look at Hector Santiago with El Super Pan. Anne Quatrano who is the matriarch of Atlanta dining scene. Every time I go to Bacchanalia I'm blown away and I feel like I just sat in my own living room having the most delicious meal. Then I go to the godfather of fine dining in Atlanta with Gerry Klaskala's Aria who everytime I see him he gives me the biggest damn hug ever! And he's only like 5'2" haha.
AM: Are you involved in any charities or how do you give of your time?
TR: Yes I am on the board of Wholesome Wave which is really important to me because we support Snap Benefits which means that dollar for dollar we match with EBT so people can go to Farmer's Markets and to get fresh food. That one is always dear to me and Lupus Foundation. Lupus affects African Americans especially African American women more then any other people in the country. It is an under served disease that affects a lot of people.
AM: Is there anything that you want to share with our readers that we can keep an eye out for?
TR: Well, the Soul Tour is traveing from NYC to the West Coast with many stops in between. Over the next month we will hit Nashville, Chicago, New Orleans, Charlotte and then back to NYC and of course many many places in Atlanta. Anyone can find me on Social Media - if you're in Atlanta, I want to know where you are and if you buy the book, I'm glad that people are posting but I want used cookbook posted - get into the kitchen and utilize it. I want to see wine stains, hot sauce stain - some boil that popped over on the book! It's great to be on the coffee table, but it's better to be in the kitchen!
PHOTO COURTESY | Excerpted from Soul by Todd Richards. Copyright © 2018 Oxmoor House. Reprinted with permission from Time Inc. Books, a division of Meredith Corporation. New York, NY. All rights reserved.