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.