Two Chefs on Keeping Alive, and Redefining, Soul Food

At their restaurants in New York and Chicago, Shenarri Freeman and Erick Williams are celebrating the cuisine in their own ways.

“I think that it’s important that we get the opportunity to see all facets of Black ingenuity, Black culture, and Black food and hospitality,” said the chef Erick Williams. “Our story is as valuable and as precious as anyone else’s.”Credit…Tonje Thilesen for The New York Times

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By Korsha Wilson

Korsha Wilson is a food writer, host of the podcast “A Hungry Society” and the co-author of two cookbooks due out in 2024.

For the Taking the Lead series, we asked leaders in various fields to share insights on what they’ve learned and what lies ahead.

The canon of soul food and Southern food is the product of a melding of American ingredients and memories of dishes from places once called home. When, over the course of decades, the Great Migration moved thousands of African Americans across the country toward the North and the West, foods like fried chicken, collard greens and black-eyed peas traveled as well, creating the genre known as soul food. Soon it was found in major cities across the country, offering those who had migrated — as well as those who hadn’t — a taste of those Southern staples. Soul food, the food historian Adrian Miller said, is “an immigrant cuisine and ultimately a national cuisine.”

Now more than a hundred years removed from the beginnings of the Great Migration, the chefs Shenarri Freeman, 30, and Erick Williams, 48, are celebrating and redefining soul food. Ms. Freeman, raised in Richmond, Va., is the executive chef at Cadence, a plant-based, Southern-inspired restaurant in Manhattan, and will soon be opening Ubuntu, a vegan African restaurant, in Los Angeles.

“People are always surprised when they find out my food is vegan which says a lot about how we view soul food and southern food,” she said. “Cooking vegan, plant-based southern, soul food is not anything new. It’s always been the way of life.”

Mr. Williams is a James Beard award-winning chef and owner of Virtue, Mustard Seed Kitchen, Daisy’s Po-Boy and Tavern and the fast-casual Top This Mac N’ Cheese, all in Chicago, where he was born and grew up. At each of his restaurants, he hands down the story of his great-grandmother’s Southern-heavy home kitchen in Chicago. She “allowed me an opportunity to be seen, heard and validated through her hospitality growing up,” he said.

Below, in a conversation that has been edited and condensed, the two chefs discuss telling the story of Southern cooking and soul food through their restaurants, how they approach leading teams and what they hope the future holds for Black chefs in America.

Does the term soul food accurately describe your style of cooking?

SHENARRI FREEMAN I like to think that my food is not just Southern, but also soul food because I think soul food has a further reach. When we’re thinking about Southern food, I think people are thinking of a geographic region, but because of the Great Migration soul food can be anywhere.

ERICK WILLIAMS It doesn’t feel like an accurate way to describe my cooking, but it does describe how my restaurants approach the food we cook and how we advocate for hospitality that we display to our guests. My journey references a very specific place in the South, so it’s Southern cooking, but also the food that was created by slaves: country cooking, scrap cookery and foods informed by Africa. But there was also Sunday cooking and celebratory cooking.

But as a chef, I’m informed by the flavors of the South, and I look at soul food as a denominator of the sum. There’s just more pieces to it. That’s all because it feels like an incomplete way to define all of the Black cooking experience.

How do you get your team to understand these traditions and your approach to them?

FREEMAN I think it starts with my vision as a leader. No one’s going to want to work with you if you don’t have a vision or some type of idea of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Everybody’s passionate in some shape or form, whether they’re passionate about Southern food, whether they’re passionate about vegan food and plant-based eating or just about, like, the food industry. All of those things tie into the staff morale and why people come to Cadence and decide to work with us. But ultimately my vision, how I interpret that and put it all on a plate, gets the staff excited.

WILLIAMS Some of the lessons are imparted through the rigor of working in a kitchen. We don’t work as hard on trying to make everyone memorize the importance of a particular dish, but it’s hard not to feel, see and express the parallels in dishes after you’ve been in the space for a while. Diners will sometimes say to me, “I’ve never been out to eat in a place in my life where I’ve felt like I really belonged,” because they can feel that hospitality, and that’s what we lead with. My great-grandmother’s legacy of hospitality still lives on in me, and I get to share that legacy with strangers. I share it in a way through our team that’s so rich that people can fill it. That’s a big deal.

Shenarri, as a chef early in her career, how do you think about your role evolving?

FREEMAN I think being young, being Black, being a woman are all things that are incorporated into my success, and I don’t take it lightly. I love it and I’m living in it, and my job in this role is to also make sure that I’m opening up doors for the next generations of chefs that come through. People have been in this position before and they’ve opened up doors for me, and I want to open up doors for people to prevent them from struggling like I did. Specifically, mentorship and sharing information on restaurant ownership is how I can be helpful.

Erick, how has your approach to leadership evolved over time?

WILLIAMS My leadership is more complex now and as I mature my perspective becomes broader and my convictions become deeper. I’ve never had a team as large as this before. I’ve never been as invested in growing and developing this many people, and I’ve never had this many people seek my counsel as they develop people that are directly under them or adjacent to them.

I don’t generally ask people to do things I’m not willing to do. I can lead from the front of the line, the back of the line, the side of the line, wherever, because my perspective is broad and it’s not important for me to be up front, whereas when I was a young leader, I always wanted to be up front. Now I don’t care if somebody else gets the credit at the front of the line as long as the line keeps moving and getting things done.

What does a more equitable restaurant landscape with good leadership look like?

FREEMAN Definitely more young Black chefs and more women chefs in leadership roles. I’d love to see that. Also more opportunities for ownership if that’s what a young chef wants. Allyship, too, is something that’s really important: Examples may be investors helping people open up restaurants or some of the fine dining establishments that have more access to certain resources being willing to partner with people. Helping people bridge those gaps and offering these resources.

WILLIAMS I think that it’s important that we get the opportunity to see all facets of Black ingenuity, Black culture, and Black food and hospitality. Our story is as valuable and as precious as anyone else’s, and I encourage my peers to try to make the best use of their time. The best use of my time is learning, growing and sharing something that is very valuable and very important to me. We had food when we had nothing but food.

The No. 1 question that was asked of me during the pandemic by people who were curious or looking for insight was, “How are you making it?” I gave the same answer every time: “The way that my ancestors taught me, one day at a time.” And so I want to encourage people to be the best version of themselves that they can possibly be, and food has been an incredible vehicle for me to advocate that way of life.

What evolution do you hope to see in food and leadership in restaurant kitchens?

FREEMAN I think in the future, Southern soul food, no matter where it is, looks like more farm-to-table cooking, incorporating local and seasonal produce and being more supportive of local Black farmers, which is the direction that I’m heading in. I don’t want to say getting back to our roots, because, truthfully, I think we’ve never really gotten too far away from them. I think they’ll also be more community-oriented.

A lot of times in the food industry we’re all in competition, which is fine if that’s pushing you to do better. But I think that we get a lot farther when we’re a community, sharing information with one another. And I think that ethos carries over to front of house workers and the clientele that’s coming in. I hope and pray that more entrepreneurs and restaurateurs move in that direction.

WILLIAMS We’re on the same page as far as sharing information. We should also be sharing our own stories with actual equity. There’s an African proverb I’ll paraphrase: “Until the lion tells the story of the hunt, it will always favor the hunter.” At some point in our lives, as descendants of Africans in America, we have to own our own narrative. That’s not the same as inclusion, which for some strange reason people confuse with equity. I can include you on a whole lot of things, but if you don’t have any stake in it because you just got invited, it doesn’t mean you share the responsibility of making sure it goes well. You have to have skin in the game.

My hope is that through food we can create agency, ownership, common ground and we can share those same experiences across racial differences, economic differences and gender differences. We’re already cooking food. As Black folks, we were cooking it then and we’re cooking it now, but how do we want to set the table?

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