Southern cuisine is enjoying an unprecedented boom in America. Jessica Chan finds out how Africanamerican chef Edouardo Jordan is shaking up a predominantly white-dominated industry with refined soul food at his James Beard Award-winning Junebaby.
Edourado Jordan of Junebaby
Mention southern cuisine and one would conjure images of fried chicken or mac’n’cheese. You’ll find more than these familiar staples at Junebaby, Seattle’s – and, perhaps, America’s – quintessential address for true soul food. Salt and pepper brisket, candied yams and oxtails complemented by a colourful array of grains populate chef-owner Edouardo Jordan’s menu.
“What most people know about southern fare barely scratches the surface. If you look at the America’s history on slavery in the south, you’d see two sides. What the slaves ate versus what they served their holders. The former was based off fifth quarter parts (that no one wanted) as these fatty, high-caloric products helped them survive the harsh working conditions. The latter were high-brow with a variety of grains and beans, leafy greens and meats. It’s more than the fomer which everyone stereotypes as unsophisticated and unhealthy,” explains the tenacious champion of the south’s gastronomic culture.
Jordan’s perfect as the cuisine’s vanguard as he grew up surrounded by southern food. Sunday suppers at his grandma’s were elaborate affairs. Up to 50 people, from siblings to distant family members, would get together just to dig into plates of fried chitlins (small intestines), braised oxtails and the occasional exotic addition of snapping turtles. His food obsession continued even after he graduated with a dual degree in sports management and business administration from the University of Florida. The then 24-year-old started a blog documenting his favourite eats in his hometown of St. Petersburg as well as a cookbook of his creations. “I was happier eating the food I made, and it struck me – I can make this as a career,” chuckled Jordan.
One Le Cordon Bleu honours degree later, he found himself under the tutelage of Ferrell Alvarez at Mise en Place (Tampa). This was followed by a succession of stints at The French Laundry with David Knell; Per Se with Thomas Keller; Lincoln Ristorante with Jonathan Benno; and, finally, at Bar Sajor with Matt Dillion. Not that it was a cakewalk for him. “As a minority, it takes a lot more. I watched others around me get promotions. Things were never handed to me,” the 38-year-old laments. Regardless, opening his own restaurant was always the end goal. Multiple loans and a successful Kickstarter campaign led to Salare, which showcases the diverse culinary cultures of America, in 2015. Subsequently in 2017, he launched Junebaby, a restaurant he started simply to cook the food he felt good about.
The success of the restaurants aside, nothing prepared him for the 2018 James Beard Awards. Not only did Junebaby nab Best New Restaurant, he also took home Best Chef: Northwest for Salare. It was an unprecedented first for an African-american and, least of all, a restaurant focused solely on southern cuisine.
A career in the culinary arts is a tough one.
If it’s something I love, I would push myself to the limit to be the best. To start, I wanted to open my own restaurant. So, being able to work with different chefs and learning from them is one of the biggest factors. It helped gather the knowledge to
craft my own voice. The opportunity to make something for myself – especially as I was a minority – is a big one too. Seeing all the chefs who I worked with, hungry as young cooks and progressing to where they are now (David Breeden, Corey Lee and Timothy Hollingsworth) pushes me as well.
How did Ferrell Alverez and Thomas Keller influence you?
I’m incredibly grateful to Alverez. Very early on he saw something in me. He took this inexperienced (and over-aged) culinary student under his wing. He’d tell me “this is what you need to do, what you need to read and what you think to think about food.”
Keller, on the other hand, was the kitchen know-how; he demonstrated that sense of urgency and perfection in the kitchen and an appreciation for food. A tomato is just as worthy as a Kobe steak. Understanding the need for good ingredients is the first step to success in the industry.
How has southern cuisine evolved since the days of African slaves arriving in America to the current era?
Southern food is definitely becoming trendy. Recipes and ingredients are being shared among chefs and home cooks. More are aware of its history, significance and beauty. Most of all, they are finally seeing it for what it is – the foundation of American cuisine.
We need to look pass the two or three “iconic” dishes. They’re Americanised. Take a good tour of the south and you’d see it’s just as vast as, say, Italy from a culinary standpoint. You can have a prosciutto-like ham over in Kentucky, and a sweet, smoky slice as you move into Virginia. The same goes for the soups and braised dishes. The base is the same, but, you know, some tweaks here and there depending on what’s available. It changes from state to state, county to county, grandma to grandma. It’s a representation – almost – of the journey of African slaves, first arriving on the east coast and moving towards the west coast.
At Junebaby, I want to show what southern food can be. I always say my menu is my interpretation of what a grandma would’ve made if she went to culinary school. I am taking my family’s recipes and thought processes, so I don’t lose the heart and soul of the dishes. There won’t be froufrou things like an oxtail terrine or dumpling. My mom would braise her oxtail and serve it on the bone, with all the vegetables and rice – and that’s how I do it. The same goes for dishes I’ve not tried (and there are so many).
You have an encyclopaedia on Junebaby’s website highlighting a variety of ingredients used in southern fare. Were there any that shocked diners?
The offcuts, but some of the best chefs in the world are the ones who work with trimmings and whatnots. Anyone can do amazing things with a tri-tip or pork loin, but to make hogs maw appetising? That’s a talent. I want Junebaby to be a bold statement on the south. I want to show the good and bad, the ugly and pretty in one restaurant.
Then there’s massive collection of grains and legumes. Barley is common, but there’s also purple lye beans, benne seeds and sorghum. We have a side called Southern Rice where we feature rice grains from different regions every night. And grains of paradise which I use for my ice creams. These staples are important. It was what the African slaves could carry on the ship to survive the arduous journey across the ocean.
Ultimately, I want diners to think. Southern food came from a necessity. People had to use whatever they could get their hands on. It’s our story on a plate.
You’ve become a strong voice for young culinarians who may feel out of place in a white-dominated industry. What is your message to the industry and the world?
A lot of chefs don’t hire black people because they can’t relate, but we shouldn’t be looked differently. We should be given the same opportunities. Our ancestors may very well have been the ones cooking for the American families ages ago. As for fellow minority chefs, just know that we have to put in our time. Things won’t be handed to us. If you want to be the best, you must work with the best. You’re not going to learn much working from a taco truck. Set goals and start achieving.
Gulf shrimps with geechic grits and red sauce Georgia candy squash, clabber, popped sorghum and watermelon