It’s safe to say that the work of chefs Tunde Wey, BJ Dennis and Michael Twitty has changed the way we talk about Southern cooking, and that New Orleans cuisine wouldn’t be the same without Leah Chase. These chefs are only a few of the most influential African American chefs cooking in the South today.
We’ve picked 20 of the most outstanding and influential African-American chefs across the South who we think have had the greatest influence on what we eat today. Some have dedicated their careers to teaching, others are television stars and still more are changing our culinary scene from behind the line.
Nigerian chef Tunde Wey has, until very recently, been traveling around the country serving pop-up meals as part of a series called “Blackness in America.” Over meals of jollof rice and pepper soup, Wey moderated intentionally uncomfortable discussions about what it means to be a person of color in America today. Wey is now running a new pop-up in New Orleans, called Saartj, that specifically challenges diners to confront the reality of racially-motivated economic injustice throughout the country.
Joe Randall, Savannah
Chef Joe Randall has been a fixture of the Savannah culinary scene since the late ’90s. After training under Robert W. Lee in Pennsylvania, he moved to Savannah in 1999. He was the director of food services for the Savannah College of Art and Design for a year before founding Joe Randall’s Cooking School, where he remained until closing the school and semi-retiring in 2016. A friend of the late Edna Lewis, Randall has made it his mission to celebrate the living history of African American chefs. In fact, only months after ending his teaching career, he re-opened his school as the offical home for the African American Chefs Hall of Fame.
Leah Chase, New Orleans
Known as the Queen of Creole Cuisine, chef Leah Chase has been a fixture of the New Orleans restaurant scene since the 1950s. Chase turned her husband’s family’s restaurant, which was once a lottery ticket and po’boy stand, into one of the defining restaurants of the 20th century. Not only has she helped to define the soul of New Orleans dining, her restaurant, Dooky Chase, was central to the Civil Rights movement and has functioned as a gallery for many African American artists. A mentor to chefs throughout the city, the South and the country, Chase is still cooking at 95 years old.Mashama Bailey, Savannah
Chef Mashama Bailey came out of seemingly nowhere (OK, not nowhere, New York) in 2014 to completely upend our expectations of what Savannah food could be. Her restaurant, The Grey, has earned Best New Restaurant nods from Eater, Esquire, Food and Wine, and Bon Appetit, and was a semifinalist for a James Beard Award in the same category. Sure, Bailey’s food is Southern, but it’s got her own experience woven in — collards are embuded with pecan smoke and local pork comes served in a “Parm broth.”
Michael Twitty, Virginia
Chef, writer and food scholar Michael Twitty has been cooking and writing about the food of enslaved Africans for years, but it wasn’t until 2013, when he penned an “open letter” to Paula Deen after she was sued for using racial slurs in her restaurant, that he catapulted to fame. Since then, Twitty has been a speaker at the MAD symposium in Copenhagen, been named one of the most influential food bloggers of all time by the website First We Feast, and has published “The Cooking Gene,” a book that simulatneously tackles his own geneology and the culinary history of enslaved Africans across the South.
Nina Compton, New Orleans
A native of St. Lucia, chef Nina Compton has cooked in Miami and New Orleans. After placing second on the New Orleans season of Bravo’s “Top Chef,” and landing the Fan Favorite award, Compton opened up Compère Lapin in 2015. She named her restaurant after a mischievious rabbit in Caribbean and Creole folktales, and serves her playful take on both New Orleans and Caribbean fare.
Compton’s cooking landed her a Best New Chef award from Food and Wine in 2017; the magazine wrote that she “unravels the French/Southern/Haitian rubber band ball of Louisiana cooking and looks at its constituent parts in a new way.” In 2018, she won the James Beard award for Best Chef: South.
Tre Wilcox, Plano, Texas
Tre Wilcox has been working in the food industry since he was 17; he worked his way up from fast food restaurants to five-star restaurants, to even an appearance on Season 3 of “Top Chef.” He has been nominated for two James Beard Awards and teamed up with Dallas chef Kent Rathbun to beat Bobby Flay in “Iron Chef America.” Today, Wilcox runs a cooking school and event space called Tre Wilcox Cooking Concepts, where he teaches public classes and team building seminars.
Carla Hall, Washington D.C.
A native of Nashville, chef Carla Hall gained fame on “Top Chef,” where she cooked her twist on Southern food across two seasons of the show. Her gregarious personality landed her on ABC’s “The Chew,” as well as two cookbook deals. Hall’s food is approachable, fun and is always, as she says, “cooked with love.” She’s also actively involved with several nonprofits, including Chef Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen Chef Network, D.C. Central Kitchen, and Women Chefs and Restaurateurs.
Marisa Baggett, Memphis
The first female African American graduate of the California Sushi Academy, Chef Marisa Baggett has made it her life’s work to share the art of making sushi. She has authored two cookbooks, “Sushi Secrets” and “Vegetarian Sushi Secrets,” and was the sushi chef of the Memphis restaurant Do Sushi Bar and Lounge. Baggett is currently a traveling itamae (sushi chef), teaching home cooks how to prepare sushi without needing expensive or exotic ingredients.
Todd Richards, Atlanta
Twice a James Beard Award semifinalist, Todd Richards is a fixture of the Atlanta culinary scene. He worked in fine-dining restaurants across town, such as The Four Seasons Hotel, the Ritz-Carleton Buckhead and White Oak Kitchen & Cocktails, before opening Richard’s Southern Fried, a fried chicken restaurant at Krog Street Market, in 2016. Richards’ new cookbook, Soul, was released last May, and was our first guest on our podcast, Sunday Supper.
Gina Neely, Memphis
Celebrity chef Gina Neely rose to prominance in the late aughts with the Food Network show, “Down Home with the Neelys,” on which she starred with her former husband and restaurant partner, Pat Neely. The show was the network’s highest-rated series debut, and it spawned a second television show, “Road Tested,” along with three cookbooks. Since separating from her husband, Neely has starred in her own show, “Chopped with Gina Neely,” launched her own cookware line, participated in a Bravo reality show and more. She is currently working on a memoir.
Tiffany Derry, Dallas
Chef Tiffany Derry worked in restaurants throughout the Houston and Dallas areas before landing a spot on “Top Chef.” She appeared on two seasons of the show, garnering the fan favorite award in Season 7, and placing fourth in “Top Chef All-Stars.” Her first restaurant, Private|Social, was a critical darling for its two years of operation. Derry recently opened a new restaurant, Roots Chicken Shack, in Plano and just finished judging the first season of Top Chef, Jr.
Bryan Furman, Atlanta
Pitmaster Bryan Furman’s name has been everywhere in Atlanta over the past year. Since opening the second location of his restaurant, B’s Cracklin’ Barbecue, in the city’s Riverside neighborhood, he’s been receiving acclaim left and right, landing best new restaurant awards from Atlanta Magazine, Thrillist, Eater and more.
Furman stands out in the Georgia barbecue scene for his commitment to whole hog cookery and heirloom animal husbandry. He makes all of his side dishes from scratch using local ingredients, a tactic rarely seen in barbecue joints, especially in Georgia. Furman’s first location, in Savannah, also received critical acclaim after opening in 2014, but a kitchen fire almost destroyed the restaurant in 2015; the entire city, it seems, teamed up to help him re-open. His newest location is in Atlanta’s Phillips Arena.
Dolester Miles, Birmingham
Chef Dolester Miles has been working at famed Birmingham restaurant, Highlands Bar and Grill, since the restaurant opened in 1982, and became the full-time pastry chef in 1988. Since that time, she has launched the pastry programs at all of Frank Sitt’s restaurants and was twice named a James Beard Award finalist, before taking home the award for outstanding pastry chef at the 2018 Awards. Her coconut-pecan cake is the stuff of legend, and writer John T. Edge has called her “a national standard-bearer.”
Dora Charles, Savannah
Chef Dora Charles was, for decades, the culinary force behind Paula Deen’s restaurant, Lady and Sons. However, after Deen was accused, by another employee, of using racial slurs, Charles left the restaurant, and went public with her own stories of racial discrimination and unfair wages. Charles has since released her own cookbook, “A Real Southern Cook in her Savannah Kitchen,” and still lives in Savannah.
BJ Dennis, Charleston
Chef BJ Dennis is likely the country’s leading ambassador of Gullah-Geechee cuisine. After spending his formative years working in restaurant kitchens, Dennis now cooks traditional Gullah dishes at pop-ups and events, and has made appearances on shows such as “Top Chef” and “Parts Unknown,” where he educates viewers on the true history and culinary technique of much of the low country’s cuisine. “Gullah-Geechee food is a lot of the basis not only of South Carolina food, but Southern food, and the original food culture of the New World,” he told The Island Packet last year.
Rodney Scott, Charleston
Rodney Scott was only 11 years old when he cooked his first whole hog at his family’s variety store, which eventually became a full-fledged barbecue joint called Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ, in Hemingway, South Carolina. Since then, he has become one of the most famed pitmasters in the country and has opened his own restaurant in Charleston. There, he cooks not only whole pigs, but also fried chicken, pit-cooked chicken, shoestring fries, and mac and cheese. Scott has made appearances on “Parts Unknown,” “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern” and a Southern Foodways Alliance film “Cut/Chop/Cook,” in addition to countless food festivals.
Erika Council, Atlanta
Named by Southern Living as one of the 30 women changing Southern food for the better, chef Erika Council makes some of the city’s best biscuits, which she frequently serves at a Saturday morning pop-up at B’s Cracklin’ Barbecue. She is also widely respected for her Southern Soufflé blog and her Soul + Food dinner parties, where she brings together guests from different perspectives and backgrounds in an attempt to find common ground.
Daryl Shular, Atlanta
The first African-American to be crowned a Certified Master Chef, Daryl Shular has been part of the culinary backbone of Atlanta for decades. He is the former Corporate Executive Chef and Director of Education for North America for the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, has received over twelve gold medals and eight “Best in Shows” awards in local and national and competitions, and has been on two award-winning United States culinary teams in 2008 and 2012. He is currently the executive chef of the Atlanta Athletic Club.
Duane Nutter, Mobile
Chef Duane Nutter made a name for himself by helping to launch the only destination airport restaurant we can think of: One Flew South at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson. Nutter trained under the late Darryl Evans, called in Gravy the “kingpin Atlanta chef in the early 1980s.” Last year, Nutter announced that he would move back, along with business partner Reggie Washington, to his hometown of Mobile to open Southern National, a dinner-only “community restaurant,” serving locally-sourced Gulf Coast seafood, globally-inspired Southern cuisine and craft cocktails.
Photo credit (hero): James Beard Foundation Facebook
Photo credit (Wey): Tunde Wey Facebook
Photo credit (Chase): Dooky Chase’s Restaurant Facebook
Photo credit (Bailey): The Grey Facebook
Photo credit (Compton): SHE Caribbean Facebook
Photo credit (Hall): Chef Carla Hall Facebook
Photo credit (Richards): Atlanta Tribune: The Magazine Facebook
Photo credit (Derry): Chef Tiffany Derry Facebook
Photo credit (Miles): Highlands Bar and Grill Facebook
Photo credit (Scott): Rodney Scott’s BBQ Facebook
Photo credit (Shular): Daryl Shular, CMC Facebook
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