In her new cookbook, Carla Hall’s Soul Food: Everyday and Celebration, the award-winning TV chef answers the question: What sets soul food apart from Southern food? Her response: black cooks.
A lot of the dishes are the same: macaroni and cheese, collard greens, fried chicken. But, “there’s an extra ‘oomph’ in soul food,” she writes in the book’s introduction. “It’s like the difference between a hymn and a spiritual: Both are beautiful and express the same message, but a spiritual’s got a groove. It delivers the kind of warmth and joy that makes you want to get up and dance.”
In the thriving food mecca of Asheville, good Southern food is seemingly around every corner. Yet, Asheville has a complicated history with African-American cuisine. On one hand, its booming restaurant scene offers a plethora of diverse options for a city of its size. On the other hand, the city has often struggled to nurture a meaningful connection to its vibrant African-American culinary heritage, as urban redevelopment projects have reshaped and relocated black communities for decades.
But, through determined activism and entrepreneurship, a few like-minded chefs are helping to keep that heritage alive.
Back to his roots
Asheville chef Gene Ettison was born and raised on soul food. Growing up in Asheville’s Southside neighborhood, traditional African-American food was so much a part of his everyday life, that it was commonplace. “I didn’t appreciate or understand the artistry of it or the technique behind it, so I distanced myself from it at first,” he says.
Ettison is the energetic founder of The Ettison Group, an enterprise that now includes three food trucks and a forthcoming brewery. One of these food trucks, J. Lee’s Chicken Shack, is steeped in traditional soul food. Another one, B.A.B.S (Build a Better Salad), takes a health-conscious approach by offering vegetarian and vegan soul food options.
After a chance encounter several years ago with The French Laundry Cookbook, Ettison initially aspired to be the next Thomas Keller, the book’s author and owner of several successful high-end restaurants, including The French Laundry and Per Se. “I wanted to charge $400 for a tasting menu,” he says with a laugh. “My mind was exploding with new ideas. I wanted to show my people that there was more to dining, honestly.”
It wasn’t until after finishing culinary school at A-B Tech that Ettison came back to the food he was brought up on. “I didn’t know that when my mother was in the kitchen mixing flour and grease together that she was actually making a roux,” he says.
More than that, he came to realize that food is about more than flavor. “Food should be felt,” he says. “It should come from the heart. Instead of trying to run from it, if you simply embrace what it is that you were grown from and understand the reasons behind it and the history behind it, then it just comes out as so much more.”
These days, he’s made it his mission to honor the tradition of soul food. “What Big Mama was doing in the kitchen is the same thing that the No. 1 chefs are doing,” he says. “It’s the exact same techniques.”
“Soul food is a celebration,” says chef Ramona Young, owner of Kente Kitchen catering company and former chef instructor for the Green Opportunities Kitchen Ready program, a training that prepares residents of low-income neighborhoods for employment in the culinary industry. “[It] represents the times when we had food to eat, that we were able to come together as a family, as a unit, and to uplift ourselves.”
Despite Asheville’s dynamic food scene, restaurants specializing in soul food are hard to find. At one point, however, African-American culinary traditions thrived in the city — especially in an area south of downtown known as The Block. Bordered by Eagle and Market streets, The Block was home to dozens of black-owned restaurants and cafés in the Jim Crow era.
But the neighborhood languished in the 1970s after urban renewal projects reshaped the community, displacing residents and businesses, the majority of which were African-American.
“The gentrification is real,” Young says. Located in Southside within the Arthur R. Edington Center, the GO Kitchen Ready program is a cornerstone of the community by way of food and fellowship. The program offers a free lunch prepared by students every Wednesday and Friday.
Like Ettison, Young wants to communicate the importance of preserving soul food traditions. “Our history is being taken away from us,” she says. “Everything is being whitewashed.” The cooking program at Green Opportunities, she says, is “trying to hold on to the culture and tradition of Southside.”
Kente Kitchen specializes in traditional West African cuisine, and Young links the work of the Kitchen Ready program to the West African concept of “communal soup.”
“They would put everything they had in it. When the men went out to fight, they would come back and eat from the soup to regain their strength. Here, I feel like this is our pot of soup,” she says, referring to the space at Green Opportunities. “We go out into the world, and we’re fighting, but then we come back here and regain our strength. We sit and talk as a community and interact, which is really the essence of soul food. It all comes down to survival.”
An ode to tradition
Young and Ettison aren’t the only ones striving to preserve and energize Asheville’s soul food legacy. John Fleer, executive chef and owner of Rhubarb and The Rhu, is slated to open a restaurant this month, Benne on Eagle, in The Block at the new Foundry Hotel.
The name is a nod to both the often-overlooked history of The Block, as well as the larger African influence on Southern food. The benne is the sesame seed that was carried from West Africa to the South during the early days of the slave trade and has played an important role in African-American and Southern cooking for centuries.
Fleer says that the restaurant’s menu “will be an acknowledgment of the longer food trail” of African influence on American cuisine. The chef, who is white, hopes to give a voice to Asheville’s displaced black community by developing and supporting African-American farmers and business owners. He’s hiring graduates from the Kitchen Ready program and consulting with Hanan Shabazz, who formerly taught at Green Opportunities and at one time owned both a soul food restaurant and bakery in Southside.
Ultimately, he hopes to open up a conversation. “This restaurant will probably ask more questions than it answers, initially,” says Fleer. “Yes, I’m an old white guy trying to cook food that celebrates soul food. It’s not a natural pairing, I know.” But, it’s important enough to him that he chooses to “embrace the awkwardness” anyway.
A landmark space
Local chef and A-B Tech graduate Clarence Robinson is also prepping to open a soul food restaurant sometime in the coming year. His will be part of the SoundSpace project at Southside’s landmark Rabbit’s Motel.
SoundSpace co-owner Claude Coleman Jr. says he discovered the storied history of Rabbit’s after he purchased the property last year. The motel was opened in the 1940s by Fred Simpson, who was nicknamed Rabbit because of his ability to run fast. During segregation, the motel accommodated a host of legendary black celebrities, musicians and athletes as they came through Asheville, including Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Richard Pryor. Elvis Presley even stayed there, says Coleman. “There’s just a massive amount of history there, and we’ve really only scratched the surface of it all.”
Rabbit’s Motel was also home to a café that served some of Asheville’s best soul food. Before it closed in the early 2000s, Rabbit’s was famous for its extra-thick fried pork chops as well as its chitlins, or chitterlings, a dish made from pig intestines, which Coleman says required days of prep work.
Cooking soul food at Rabbit’s holds special significance for Robinson. “I come from one of the oldest families in Southside,” he says. “I grew up behind Rabbit’s. My father used to hang out down there, and my aunt actually cooked there, so it’s somewhat like a family connection for me.”
Robinson plans for his menu to pay homage to the history of the building while also offering a modern focus. “I’m going to keep it traditional soul food, but I’m also going to give people the option to eat healthy — fresh, farm-to-table soul food. It’s going to be out of this world,” he says.
For these chefs, soul food can be a catalyst for social change. It has the power to unite struggling communities, provide jobs and tell a vital story. Ettison, for one, hopes to use soul food as a bridge to a healthier lifestyle. In addition to offering a lighter, meat-free menu, he sources his produce from organic, urban farms throughout the city.
“We want to rise and be the voice for food justice in this region and support communities through healthy living,” Ettison says.
GO Kitchen Ready’s program manager, chef Hayette Bouras, also has a strong health focus. The UNC Asheville graduate and fitness instructor specializes in vegan and gluten-free cuisine. “She brings to Green Opportunities an exciting new twist on our cultural favorites, exploring vegan and gluten-free soul food,” says GO executive director J Hackett.
At its core, the story of soul food in Asheville is one of family, culture and the survival of a community. “When you’re cooking from the heart and cooking with love, and you’re cooking every meal like you’re cooking for your family, that’s soul food,” says Robinson.