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Food for thought: Chef Todd Richards says soul food is the equal of haute cuisine

He’s working with Ludacris and just won a major Cookbook of the Year award

Chef Todd Richards is on a mission, both inside and outside the kitchen, to ensure that soul food is appreciated as exquisite cuisine.

“Soul food will always be the greatest part of American cuisine,” Richards said. “But we’ll go to someone else’s culture, eat their food and make no complaints. Culturally, we can no longer do that. Our food is the most vibrant part of what we have to do. It’s up to us to command respect for our food.”

The self-taught chef’s debut cookbook/memoir, Soul: A Chef’s Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipes, was recently named American Cookbook of the Year by the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

Richards is the culinary director of Jackmont Hospitality, the company that oversees two restaurants at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport: Chicken + Beer, owned by Grammy-winning rapper Ludacris and named after his 2003 album, and One Flew South, which bills itself as the first “upscale” establishment at the world’s busiest airport.

Eric Vitale

“I wanted to make sure our stories are being told to inspire different generations coming forward,” said Richards, 47. “You have a cuisine that is the backbone to American culture, but you don’t find it in every single neighborhood in every part of the country.”

Richards is the culinary director of Jackmont Hospitality, the company that oversees two restaurants at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport: Chicken+Beer, owned by Grammy-winning rapper Ludacris and named after his 2003 album, and One Flew South, which bills itself as the first “upscale” establishment at the world’s busiest airport.

“To have an album like Chicken-n-Beer that’s inspirational, generational, and also represents Atlanta gives me great inspiration to go in there and cook the best food because I’m not only representing myself,” Richards said. “I’m representing one of the most successful artists in the world while representing a city that is the mecca of culture. Everyone comes here to understand black culture.”

The two-time James Beard Award semifinalist for best chef: Southeast also oversees Richards’ Southern Fried, a restaurant located east of downtown in Krog Street Market. There, he fuses soul food with other global cuisines via items such as collard green pho, hot chicken macaroni and cheese, and a chicken sandwich topped with pimento cheese and chow chow.

“I talk to us, black people, first because if we’re not proud of our food, then none of this makes any sense. I can’t expect someone to be proud of our food if we’re not proud of it ourselves.” — Todd Richards

The Atlanta-Journal Constitution’s reviewer praised Richards’ Southern Fried as “very delicious, beautifully brined, crispy-skinned and obsession worthy.” Garden & Gun said Richards’ staple offering is “the best hot chicken in Atlanta.”

Richards sees no difference between preparing soul food and fine dining. He prefers to marinate his meats over a span of days. Time and patience, he says, are essential for preparing quality dishes and matching them with comparable price points. Black-owned restaurants, he adds, should never be frugal when selecting food items.

“It changes the narrative of what black food is,” he said. “It’s a technical-driven food that should not be considered as cheap. Why shouldn’t it have the same ransom as duck confit? If you think about technique, they’re absolutely the same.”

Richards moved to Atlanta from Chicago in 1993 and landed a job as a butcher at a Kroger grocery store. He later became a line cook at Blue Ribbon Grill, where he was introduced to his mentor, Four Seasons Hotel executive chef Darryl Evans. Richards did stints at The Ritz-Carlton hotel chain and helped the Oakroom at the Seelbach Hilton restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky, earn a AAA Five Diamond Award.

Richards then worked at a number of restaurants in the Atlanta area. A contestant on Food Network’s fifth season of Iron Chef America, he says that each job in a restaurant contributes to its long-term success.

“People think being a dishwasher is the worst job in the restaurant,” Richards said. “It’s actually the most important job. They’re in charge of cleanliness and sanitation. If I don’t have a clean pot to cook in or plate to put it on, then the restaurant doesn’t function. What they do is not menial labor.”

Cedric McCroery, the chef de cuisine at One Flew South, said Richards inspired him to look at cooking as a form of storytelling. “Sometimes the story is obvious,” McCroery said via Facebook. “Sometimes it’s meant to be realized in combination of flavor, taste and presentation. That lesson inspired me to refocus.”

Richards’ cookbook/memoir, “Soul: A Chef’s Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipes,” was recently named American Cookbook of the Year by the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

Richards’ next project is to revamp Anderson’s Old Fashion Bar-B-Q in southwest Atlanta’s Florida Heights community. The effort is rooted in his relationship with his deceased father, who taught him how to prepare barbecue. He is also aiming to reinvigorate black food culture in a community with limited meal options beyond fast food.

“Fine dining is in my brain, but barbecue is in my soul,” he said. “Legacy is probably one of the most important things. Everybody wants it. Every culture has something in every single neighborhood except for us.

“I talk to us, black people, first because if we’re not proud of our food, then none of this makes any sense. I can’t expect someone to be proud of our food if we’re not proud of it ourselves. We cannot make our food cheap. We are people that have had the harshest conditions to grow some things, but it’s the most delicious food.”

Richards refers to his work inside and outside the kitchen as “black excellence” and believes it’s his duty at this stage of his career to empower the next generation of culinary professionals from marginalized communities.

Joshua Lee, Chicken+Beer’s executive chef, attests to Richards’ mentorship. “I really admire his work ethic and his drive to push others,” he said via Facebook. “He’s very dedicated to bringing light to soul food cuisine, very hands-on, and clear-cut when it comes to assuring that everyone understands his vision.”

“Who’s coming after me?” Richards said. “It’s easy for me to show up, but the Joshua Lees and Cedric McCroerys of the world are working with me and following me. I get to affect the minds of a lot more people, take young people and find out what’s really great about them.

“They got it after this. They have to go out and make their own legacies so that the traditions that we forged in this country can continue.”

Christopher A. Daniel, M.A. is an Atlanta-based, award-winning journalist, cultural critic, ethnomusicologist, Prince enthusiast, and multimedia journalism professor at Clark Atlanta University.