Like a flaky, buttermilk biscuit, the South is rising again—only not how you might first think. Led by culinary pioneers like Charleston’s Sean Brock of Husk and New Orleans’ Donald Link of Cochon and Herbsaint, the Southern food trend has been charming the nation the last two years, embraced by a nation flooded by foodies flocking to the comfort of iconic Southern staples like fried chicken and barbecue elevated to the next level.
Amongst the brigade of talented Southern chefs is Raleigh’s own Ashley Christensen, proprietor of Poole’s Downtown Diner, Beasley’s Chicken + Honey, Chuck’s and Fox Liquor Bar. And she’s part of a class of talented chefs like Hugh Acheson from Atlanta pumping new life into the perennial foods of the South, pushing classic, Southern cuisine to previously unexplored heights by integrating an amalgamation of ingredients and methods of preparation from Europe or as far away as the East and the Middle East. Thick, sloppy gravies and ham-hock simmered greens are giving way in their cast-iron skillets and dutch ovens to a whole new crop of ingredients that’s anything but stultifying and it’s proving that Southern food does not remain fettered by its unctuous fried, lard-soaked and unhealthy reputation. In other words, this ain’t exactly Paula Dean’s definition of artery-clogging Southern food, a world where everything is clumsily held together by the addition of a stick of room-temperature butter y’all.
Dubbed New Southern cuisine, it’s now more sophisticated food—some might called it elevated—but not soulless. More foreign ingredients like pork belly and sumac might make an occasional guest appearance on these chefs’ menus, but it’s not a completely dismissive abandonment of the usual Southern suspects like ‘cue, grits and fried chicken. In this newfound world of Southern food, don’t be surprised to see a rack of pork ribs mopped by a scallion-soy glaze or a plate of cornmeal-dusted North Carolina catfish served alongside wood-fired baby cabbage (both on Husk’s menu).
Dishes from the likes of Brock, Acheson, Link and Christensen are largely inspired by the surrounding agricultural community and seafood bounty, naturally shoe-horning themselves into the locavore, farm-to-table ethos that has become popular in recent years. And it’s through the innovative talent of this crop of talented chefs in the South taking advantage of the homegrown, native ingredients in the region that the nuances of Southern cuisine are able to shine the brightest while preserving the irrefutable crux of Southern cuisine— honest food and Southern hospitality.
In case you might have missed it, Hannah Norwick and the FirstWeFeast blog published a wonderful feature story earlier last week about Christensen and the ten dishes that have influenced her culinary career.
It’s an interesting read and you’ll learn by reading about the ten dishes about how she culled inspiration from her childhood, family life and peers and how her culinary past has manifested into her slew of successful food and drink establishments in Raleigh.