Weekend Herald - Canvas

Cover story: The Chitlins Have Come Home

America’s hottest chef is bringing soul food (and politics) to Wellington. He talks to Kim Knight.


The inside of a pig? It tastes like a barnyard. “You get that internal hoggy smell,” says the chef. “You get the aroma of the innards and the heat. You get all of that, like that’s what you’re essentiall­y tasting. A very strong, gamey, barnyardy-taste. The essence of the hog.”

Chitterlin­gs are pronounced Chit-lins. They’re spelled like that sometimes too but I’m still none the wiser to the nature of this dish that turns out to be the intestines of a pig, boiled or stewed with aromatics. Chitlins have made Edouardo Jordan famous. Now he is trying to explain them down a phone line on a day off (“not really a day off”) from his Seattle restaurant­s. He owns three. But it’s the one called Junebaby that’s making headlines. Essence of hog — and essence of home.

When New York magazine called Jordan “the hottest chef in America”, the reference was not to his looks. The Florida-born chef, a headliner at next month’s Wellington on a Plate festival, is piling up awards for his no-holds-barred elevation of southern soul food. And if you’re looking for a definition of “soul food” here’s one from the Junebaby website:

“Southern food’s humble beginnings embarked when West Africans were taken from their home and were forced across the middle passage to North America. The term soul food originated during American slavery to not only describe a type of cuisine but also a period of time of oppression and overcoming hardships.”

Sometimes, the intestines of a pig were the only food left.

Jordan can rillette a salmon and soubise a sauce

with the best of them. He is a classicall­y trained chef who went to culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Orlando and has a curriculum vitae that includes time at Per Se and The French Laundry and a stint learning the secrets of Italian salumi. Other early life lessons: “I learned how to protect myself, I learned how to walk through a store, an expensive store — and what not to do in that store if I saw a police officer ... you can’t have a bookbag on and you can’t be digging in that backpack, you know, ’cos we’re going to get stopped.”

It’s sad, he says, “but that’s the reality also of a young black walking through a store”.

He grew up in St Petersburg, Florida. It’s the Sunshine City, on account of a Guinness World Record for 768 consecutiv­e days of sunshine between 1967 and 1969. In 2011, its arts scene (“vibrant”) won a national top mid-size city accolade. And in 1996, the National Guard was deployed when police shot dead an unarmed male teenage African American during a traffic stop.

“I was there for the race riots and the police retaliatio­n,” Jordan confirms. “Luckily not every part of our country is like this — but we do have pockets that still experience extreme racism and discrimina­tion and prejudice and that’s a reality.”

It’s easy to skim read a narrative like this. So far, so racist, so America. Jordan says his Seattle experience is different from his Florida years and, actually, even where he grew up “isn’t like the most racist city in America”. But on the day of this interview, Jordan appeared in the New York Times, as part of an ensemble story titled “16 Black Chefs Changing Food in America”.

I’m standing up for the foods that I grew up with. We shouldn’t shame anyone for the foods that they grew up on.

Sample social media response: “Black people have a veeeery high rate of diabetes I’ll pass on that and, BTW even though I voted for Trump and I will again, I’m by no means racist at all.”

Junebaby (his dad’s neighbourh­ood nickname) was not intended to make a political statement. But Jordan did want his restaurant to educate. The menu comes with an encycloped­ia that can also be accessed online. A is for Africa from where “between the 15th and 19th centuries, the Atlantic slave trade took an estimated 7-12 million slaves to the New World”.

If that’s confrontin­g for some customers, “that means they’re probably not going to come to our restaurant,” Jordan says.

“I’m fine with those people who are so uncomforta­ble that they can’t understand reality and facts and I’m fine with that because they probably won’t like my food anyway, because they already came in with their noses up.

“For me, it’s an opportunit­y to have a conversati­on. If someone feels so adamant that

I need to take that down, or my statements are wrong, or the facts are not the facts, then that’s a conversati­on that we can have and we need to have these uncomforta­ble conversati­ons sometimes,

even if it revolves around food. Some of the best conversati­on is around food.”

So Jordan serves his chitlins in a stew with hog maw and his Gulf shrimp comes with grits and even though Seattle is coastal, that is catfish on the dinner menu.

“You can’t go having everyone and anyone’s catfish,” he admits. “It’s not the best thing in the world if you’re getting a bad one!”

Once, says Jordan, he used to turn his own nose up. “No one else around me liked chitlins. All my friends were, ‘Do you really eat that?’ It’s so — I don’t know the right word — like a form of bullying? Bullying against people’s food. Now I’m standing up for the foods that I grew up with. We shouldn’t shame anyone for the foods that they grew up on, because that’s part of their history and part of their lifestyle.”

The rise and rise of southern American cuisine is well-documented. Martha Stewart’s sweet potato pie. Reese Witherspoo­n’s buttermilk biscuits. Ponsonby Rd’s eight-hour barbecued briskets. In 2016, a fancy American department store caused a furore when it advertised $66 trays of frozen collard greens — the brassica leaves that historians have labelled one of the few plants enslaved African Americans were allowed to grow and harvest for themselves. “Would anyone like some cornmeal focaccia with their #gentrified­greens?” asked one commentato­r.

Jordan: “You know, there’s a lot of southern restaurant­s in the United States of America now. But most of them are run by white males.”

The 39-year-old is a solo dad to Akil, a 5-yearold with an Instagram profile that reads “future president, scientist, astronaut, engineer, or whatever I want to become”. Jordan never set out to become a chef. At the University of Florida, he studied sports management and business administra­tion. Homecoming king. Prom king. A four-sport letterman. “Always an overachiev­er,” he posts next to the old family photos his mum recently sent him. Probably, when he did decide to cook, he was always going to cook big.

“I put my blinders on and I didn’t give a care what others think about what I do. This is what I am presenting. This is the food of my roots, my family, my history.”

Momma Jordan’s oxtails (US$23) come with morel mushrooms, spring vegetables and consomme but, as critic Pete Wells wrote when he dished out that rare three-star review, there is no attempt to prettify the hunks of beef, “barely hanging on to tailbones whose wide, white wings flare out like propeller blades ...”

The stock is clarified with egg white (Cordon Bleu, etc). But the essence of this dish is home.

“My mum and dad, most of my family, they are my biggest critics, at least my most vocal. I get feedback from them all the time, but being that I am a chef and this is my profession, I definitely elevate it to a higher level than what they would have ever presented to me at a table. It’s a higher-end approach to some of the more comforting foods that they have experience­d.”

Jordan learned to cook from his mother and grandmothe­r. He has previously told Eater Seattle that possum, raccoon and snapping turtles were “not uncommon” dinner table fare. His family did not have a lot of money (“they still don’t”) and that has “definitely shaped who I am and made me work harder than the next person who was around me. I knew when I opened the doors to my own restaurant, that I could not fail. If I failed, I failed a lot of people and I’d now have to pay back a whole crapload of money that I can’t even find.”

Things worked out so well that last year the Mayor of Seattle declared November 28 “Eduardo Jordan Day” in perpetuity. Now, he can make headlines with a macaroni cheese recipe.

It was 5am in New Zealand and 10am in Seattle when Jordan answered his phone. For 40 minutes we talked food and power and politics and family. He said things like this: “We’re shedding light on southern food and it’s the hallmark and the foundation of America. And we shall not forget that, at the same time, it was the building block that fed a lot of colonisers. Folks that came over to build America were fed by the soul and the knowledge of forced southerner­s.”

And this: “If you think about the true definition of what a restaurant is, it means to restore. We’re hopefully restoring people by giving them beautiful food, that they enjoy, that gives them energy and excitement, that brings families together to socialise and communicat­e.”

We talked about crispy pig’s ears with strawberri­es (“just a sweet note”) and his son’s favourite foods (“grilled cheese, brownies, quesadilla”) and finally, I thought, it was time. “About that macaroni ... ” I say. Hot tips from America’s hottest chef?

“Get good cheese. Don’t go in there and grab the crappiest cheese you can find.”

I tell him that in New Zealand, we don’t do bad cheese.

“Good to know! The reality is, I don’t know a lot about New Zealand. I haven’t been, I haven’t learned a lot about it ... and I feel good about not doing a lot of research on it either. I want to go and have people tell me, ‘This is what you need to eat, this is what you should have, these are the street foods, these are the mom and pop places you should visit.’”

At Wellington on a Plate — the capital’s annual, month-long culinary festival — Jordan will team up with Boulcott Street Bistro’s Rex Morgan. According to the programme notes, their August 17 and 18 event “Food with Roots”, will celebrate the chefs’ respective heritages — African-american and Maori. Jordan says he’s received a list of seasonal proteins and vegetables from Morgan. What’s he cooking? Probably not chitterlin­gs, he says. “Honestly, I haven’t opened the email. Today is my day off. I’ll be planning the menu.”

Later that night, I whisk White-stone Lindis Pass brie into a pot on the stove. The blond roux has bubbled, the full cream has thickened and three previous measures of cheese have melted. Half a teaspoon of smoked paprika. Pasta. Salt. A cast iron skillet..

Something else Jordan said about food was this: “What matters the most

is how it tastes.”

Visa Wellington on a Plate, August 1-31. See visawoap.com

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 ?? PHOTO / SHANNON RENFROE ?? Seattlebas­ed chef Edouardo Jordan.
PHOTO / SHANNON RENFROE Seattlebas­ed chef Edouardo Jordan.

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