“We do more than fried chicken.”

When was the last time you sat down at an “upscale” or “elevated’ Southern restaurant and paid $30+ for an entree? In Charleston, probably within the last month. There’s nothing wrong with the food, and nothing surprising about the price point. But would you pay the same for a plate of “soul food?” What makes it different from this upscale Southern menu everyone and their mother wants to serve?

“In the South when we talk about Southern food, most chefs harken back to Granny and Granny’s food and Mom and Pop,” says chef Greg Collier on the third episode of the four-part Stories from the Soul, a podcast which covers race and food hosted by TV personality, actor, and cookbook author Gina Neely.

“For African-American chefs, it kind of stops there when we talk about southern food. [People will say] ‘Oh soul food is great when it’s $15 and below. But when you go above that margin it all of a sudden changes to ‘southern food’ or ‘modern southern food’ and I think it’s easier for a white chef to speak about Granny’s food and say ‘oh I took Granny’s food to culinary school and learned to elevate it,'” says Collier. “When it comes to African-American chefs, especially in the South, you have to talk about something a little different than Granny’s food in order to elevate yourself.”

Presenting soul food — not the fried chicken and collards you may conjure up, but components of these heartwarming dishes — in a new light is the goal of Soul Food Sessions (SFS) a pop-up dinner series founded in Charlotte, N.C. two-and-a-half years ago.

[embed-2] SFS is comprised of six African-American chefs and restaurateurs from the Southeast. Greg Williams and Jamie Barnes co-own What the Fries food truck in Charlotte; Michael Bowling is a co-founder of Soul Food Sessions, and has cooked at the James Beard House in New York City as well as for elite restaurants throughout the South; pastry chef Jamie Suddoth owns a cake shop, Jamie’s Cakes & Classes, in Charlotte; and Subrina and Gregory Collier own The Yolk, a breakfast cafe in Charlotte.

The chefs came together, Bowling tells us, via an Instagram message. “I was an Instagram novice and I couldn’t find the message,” laughs Bowling. “And I didn’t have everyone’s contact…but once we got together and did that first dinner, we didn’t know what the reaction would be. Generally when you see dinners and the chef lineup it’s a bunch of white guys. This was something different — this was something people in Charlotte had never seen before.” 

After that first dinner was met with overwhelming success, the chefs decided to create Soul Food Sessions, taking it on the road for the first time this summer. They’ve popped up in Charlotte, D.C., and Baltimore, and will host a dinner at the Dewberry in Charleston as the final stop of their tour.

The Charleston dinner will feature guest chefs Mike and Shyreatha Sheats, Jason Sherrill, and Kevin Mitchell and will include dishes from New Orleans grillades over cornmeal waffle with green strawberry relish to a steamed sheepshead with a crispy oyster purloo croquette and she-crab gravy. Find full menu details and purchase tickets online.

The reasoning behind stopping at these particular cities (other than the fact that Bowling says Charleston is a “dream city” where both he and Collier have contributed their culinary finesse in the past), is that Coca-Cola Consolidated (CCC) is located in all of them. CCC has offices in 14 states and D.C., with their headquarters in Charlotte serving as the largest independent Coca-Cola bottler in the country.

“When we started out our goal was to do scholarships and community outreach,” says Bowling. “Coca-Cola Consolidated approached us and said ‘we want to help.’ They earmarked money for scholarships and are helping us manage and operate our tour.” Bowling says in Charlotte they’ve given money to Johnson & Wales, and in D.C. they were planning to work with a program that helps high school kids prepare for culinary careers.  [embed-1] CCC VP of Communications Brian Nick says that some people from the company attended one of the first SFS dinners and “really got inspired by the event, from the stories they heard firsthand. It was very intriguing — very community focused. They brought the idea back to the company and said ‘is there something we can do to support this group?'”

By the end of 2018, SFS and CCC will have granted $10,000 worth of scholarships to culinary students. “What’s neat about it is people came together entirely on their own, from this grassroots standpoint to put these dinners together,” says Nick. “Any time we see that as a company it’s very rewarding to be able to help them with resources and achieve what they’re trying to do for their community and other communities.”

And while SFS has continued their success on the road — everyone from the Washington Post to UK’s Independent has written about the pop-up series, and they’re co-creators (and the reason behind) the Stories From the Soul podcast — this is just the beginning of the conversation. The table has only been set: According to the 2017 United States Dept. of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 16 percent of head chefs and cooks are black. Between 2015-2017 there were only four African American James Beard award winners for best chef and best restaurant out of 120 winners. It is our job, now, to take a seat.

“Where are the black chefs?”asks Neely on the first episode of Stories from the Soul. “They’re here, we’re here right now. We do more than fried chicken, we’re here to show y’all we can make soups from scratch, we can sear some scallops,” says Chef Greg Williams. “We’re here.”