Todd Richards’ new cookbook ponders what puts the soul in Southern food

“Soul: A chef’s culinary evolution in 150 recipes” by Todd Richards. (of Time Inc. Books/Angie Mosier)

Read this cookbook: “Soul: A Chef’s Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipes” by Todd Richards (Oxmoor House, $35)

 

By Wendell Brock

With his first cookbook, Atlanta chef Todd Richards delivers a glorious compendium of thoughtful and refined recipes that are his personal response to the accumulated history of American cooking, from slave days to the contemporary moment.

In the pages of “Soul: A Chef’s Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipes,” published Tuesday, you will discover super-sophisticated multi-component recipes such as Peach Salsa, Chicken Liver Pate, and Apple Aspic on Zucchini Bread; Pickled Strawberry Salad with Champagne Vinaigrette, Black Pepper Creme Fraiche, and Smoked Pecans; and Smoked Duck Breast with Brandied Cherries, Pound Cake, and Whipped Cream.

Todd Richards, author of “Soul: A chef’s culinary evolution in 150 recipes.” (Courtesy of Time Inc. Books/Eric Vitale)

And you’ll see instructions for some signature items he serves at his restaurant, Richards’ Southern Fried, a Krog Street Market counter-service joint known for hot chicken, chicken and waffles, and classic Southern sides like collards, mac and cheese, red beans and rice and cornbread.

>> RELATED: Review: Richards’ Southern Fried fries flashes of brilliance

Inspired by the bounty of fresh ingredients that define the region, Richards devotes chapters to iconic crops like corn, tomatoes, berries, melons and stone fruit, all of which come to market in wild abundance in the coming days and weeks.

In recipe after recipe, Richards exhibits blazing creativity. And he offers a heartfelt introduction about the conflict he felt as a black kid growing up in Chicago, divided between Midwestern cuisine and the “classic Southern and Soul food” he experienced while visiting his father’s family in Hot Springs, Ark.

Childhood memories and professional observations are interspersed throughout this cookbook like random wisps of smoke from a charcoal grill: We hear about the church-picnic ladies who argued over the right way to make peach cobbler; the neighbors who came to his Chicago home for barbecue and fish fries while he went to theirs for fried chicken and French-influenced Haitian; the great mentor who taught him to prepare lamb.

What’s missing, oddly, is context about this self-taught chef’s so-called “Culinary Evolution,” how he acquired all that skill and technique. There’s nary a word of crucial backstory about how he came to Atlanta in 1992, at the age of 20; got a job in the meat department of Kroger; and went on to become executive chef at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, the Shed at Glenwood, the Pig & the Pearl, and White Oak Kitchen & Cocktails.

However, Richards does not leave out wine pairings; serving suggestions; a musical playlist; and evocations of what might be on the radio (or your home stereo) when devouring his sensational-sounding themed menus. Imagine listening to Norah Jones, Nina Simone, Al Hudson & the Soul Partners, and Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band while savoring a brunch of Bacon, Collard, and Fried Egg Sandwich; Heirloom Tomato Salad; Oysters and Cucumber Mignonette and Strawberries with Champagne Aspic, Whipped Cream, and Honey.

Course by course, I’m down with that!

That said, most of these recipes are not for your everyday home cook — regular folk like me and thee. Should you decide to fix his Cornmeal Crackers with Chicken Liver Mousse, Chorizo Butter, and Tomato Jam or his Shrimp, Field Peas, and Andouille in Smoked Tomato Broth, you will need time, energy and patience.

As for why he chose to omit crucial biographical details, perhaps Richards is saying that he’s free at last to cook whatever he wants, however he wants, whenever he wants and for whomever he wants — without corporate meddling; heavy-freighted stereotypes; and debates that come with labels like “soul food” and “fine dining.”

Maybe his style of cooking — be it pork jowl or chitterlings, sea urchin or caviar — doesn’t need explaining. Maybe it just is. All Richards asks is that it be made with love, and that it taste delicious.

AUTHOR APPEARANCE

7-9 p.m. June 7. Cooking demonstration. $59 (includes copy of the book). Cook’s Warehouse. 1544 Piedmont Ave., Atlanta. 1-800-499-0996, register online at cookswarehouse.com.

 

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