The Hottest Chefs Redefining Southern Cuisine

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Southern cuisine

This feature is brought to you by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

  1. Mashama Bailey

When asked why a visit to The Grey is a must, renowned chef Mashama Bailey is quick to highlight the significance of Savannah, the city in which her restaurant is situated. “Savannah is a destination of great importance,” she explains, “as it stands as one of America’s oldest port cities. It has embraced culinary influences from around the world.”

Bailey’s contribution to Savannah is The Grey, a restaurant that has gained national acclaim since its opening in 2014. The name pays homage to its location, formerly a Greyhound bus station, symbolizing the convergence of different cultures, ideas, and traditions.

At The Grey, Bailey focuses on local, seasonal, and classic ingredients, often drawing inspiration from old recipes. She puts a twist on traditional dishes, such as adding Swiss chard and coconut milk to her sweet potato entrée. In recognition of her innovative approach, Bailey was honored as the nation’s Outstanding Chef by the James Beard Foundation.

Bailey’s culinary philosophy challenges the narrow stereotypes associated with Southern cuisine. She believes that “Southern food deserves a broader definition,” emphasizing its connection to the seasons, vegetables, and sustainability. Southern cuisine can be both nourishing and wholesome.

  1. Sean Brock

Over the past decade, few chefs have elevated Southern dining quite like Sean Brock. He first made a name for himself as the executive chef at McCrady’s, a renowned fine-dining establishment in Charleston, South Carolina. His arrival in 2006 propelled both himself and the restaurant to national fame, elevating Charleston’s dining scene. Brock further solidified his reputation at Husk, another Charleston restaurant showcasing his refined Southern cuisine. Husk soon gained recognition as one of America’s best restaurants. Brock’s achievements include winning awards, writing a bestselling cookbook, and being featured on popular TV shows.

Brock’s focus has shifted to Nashville, where he operates Audrey, his flagship Appalachian restaurant named after his grandmother. He also oversees June, a tasting-menu concept restaurant, and The Continental at Grand Hyatt Nashville. In addition, he runs a counter stand called Joyland, serving comforting food.

Brock’s reverence for Southern culinary heritage is evident in his use of heritage pigs and heirloom produce like Sea Island red peas. He finds inspiration in the cultural, social, and economic context surrounding Southern cuisine. According to Brock, Southern cuisine is a fusion of various traditions and ingredients brought to the region over time, including contributions from Cherokee and West African cultures. Regardless of any changes, these foundational ingredients and flavors remain at the heart of Southern cuisine.

Brock’s upbringing in rural Virginia, where seed saving was commonplace, deeply influenced his cooking philosophy. Saving nearly extinct seeds became a way for him to preserve cultural stories and honor the resilience of those who endured hardships. His relentless pursuit of new flavors and exploration of culinary techniques in his laboratory at June continue to push the boundaries of Southern food.

  1. Rodney Scott

Barbecue holds an almost sacred place in Southern cuisine, and Rodney Scott, a native of South Carolina, is one of its most celebrated practitioners. Scott’s journey began in Hemingway, where he started cooking as a teenager at Scott’s Variety Store and its small restaurant, Scott’s Bar-B-Que. There, he mastered the art of preparing barbecue from scratch, meticulously burning wood down to coals and slowly cooking meats in a smokehouse. He learned the importance of patience, tending to the fire and infusing the meats with a vinegar-based sauce over several hours.

For over 50 years, Scott’s Bar-B-Que has attracted locals and travelers alike with its pit-style whole-hog barbecue. Scott’s unique cooking technique, with the skin-side-up process, allows the rendered fat to infuse the meat, resulting in a flavorful and tender protein. The sauce, made with cayenne pepper, black pepper, and lemon juice, complements the natural flavors of the meat.

In 2017, Scott expanded his barbecue empire by opening Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ in Charleston. Since then, he has established four more locations in Alabama and Georgia, with plans to open in Nashville. His goal is to share the joy of barbecue far and wide.

  1. Ashley Christensen

Chef Ashley Christensen believes that Southern cuisine, like any cuisine, defies simple definition. According to her, three defining characteristics are the region’s unique ingredients, the complex history behind those ingredients, and the diverse experiences that shape each Southern chef’s perspective. For Christensen, food is a powerful medium for storytelling, reflecting the past and pointing toward the future.

Christensen, a North Carolina native, opened her flagship restaurant, Poole’s Diner, in Raleigh 15 years ago. Known for its classic comfort dishes executed with exceptional skill, Poole’s Diner has garnered numerous accolades. One of its most famous dishes is the mac au gratin, which surpasses expectations with its unforgettable flavors. Christensen takes equal pride in her restaurant’s house-made vinaigrettes, which enhance the natural taste of vegetables.

Christensen’s other restaurants, such as Beasley’s Chicken + Honey and Death & Taxes, continue to redefine Southern comfort foods. Her cooking style is influenced by her father, a long-haul truck driver with a passion for diverse cuisines, and her mother, who learned to cook from her grandmother and had international culinary experiences. Christensen’s approach involves deconstructing classic dishes and reconstructing them with a deep respect for tradition and origin. Her aim is to create an experience that exceeds expectations and makes people feel cared for and welcomed.

  1. Vishwesh Bhatt

When in Oxford, Mississippi, keep an eye out for Snackbar, a restaurant that showcases the culinary brilliance of chef Vishwesh Bhatt. Bhatt’s talent for combining flavors from the South and around the world has attracted visitors from far and wide.

Snackbar, a neighborhood brasserie, offers a unique atmosphere that transports guests to a different world upon entering. Bhatt describes it as Oxford’s living room, a place of comfort and community.

Born in India, with a father who taught at the University of Mississippi, Bhatt embodies the diversity and creativity of Mississippi. His dishes, such as pakora stuffed with Gulf shrimp and served with sweet and spicy tomato sauce, reflect this fusion of flavors.

Visitors to Snackbar are encouraged to explore the daily specials, which feature limited quantities of ingredients that inspire Bhatt’s creativity. Whether it’s exceptional fish, locally sourced pork loins, or Mississippi Delta catfish, each dish tells a story about the region’s culinary heritage.

Bhatt firmly believes that the South is the most exciting place for food in the United States. He sees Southern cuisine as the epitome of American food, rooted in diversity and driving culinary innovation. To experience the vibrant food scene, Bhatt suggests embracing the ever-evolving Southern flavors found in the region.

Published in the July/August 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Southern cuisine

Who are the featured chefs in this article?

The featured chefs in this article are Mashama Bailey, Sean Brock, Rodney Scott, Ashley Christensen, and Vishwesh Bhatt.

What makes these chefs stand out?

These chefs are known for redefining Southern cuisine through their innovative approaches, use of local and seasonal ingredients, and exploration of diverse flavors. They bring a fresh perspective to traditional dishes while honoring the rich culinary heritage of the South.

Where are these chefs located?

Mashama Bailey is located in Savannah, Georgia. Sean Brock operates restaurants in Charleston, South Carolina, and Nashville, Tennessee. Rodney Scott has establishments in South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, and plans to open in Nashville. Ashley Christensen’s flagship restaurant is in Raleigh, North Carolina. Vishwesh Bhatt runs Snackbar in Oxford, Mississippi.

What is the culinary philosophy of these chefs?

These chefs embrace the diverse influences and history of Southern cuisine. They emphasize the use of local, seasonal ingredients and celebrate the cultural context of the dishes they create. Each chef has their unique style, but they all share a passion for elevating Southern flavors and challenging culinary stereotypes.

Can I experience their cuisine outside of their main restaurants?

Yes, some of these chefs have expanded their culinary ventures beyond their flagship restaurants. For example, Sean Brock has multiple establishments, including a tasting-menu concept restaurant and a comfort food stand. Rodney Scott has opened multiple locations in different states. It’s worth exploring their diverse offerings to get a taste of their culinary expertise.

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6 comments

SouthernEats July 14, 2023 - 8:38 pm

sean brock is a legend in the southern dining scene his food is like art on a plate i can’t wait to visit one of his restaurants

Reply
YummyBBQ July 15, 2023 - 12:18 am

rodney scott’s bbq is the bomb i’ve had it before and it’s so juicy and flavorful

Reply
SpicyPalate July 15, 2023 - 12:31 am

snackbar seems like a hidden gem vishwesh bhatt’s fusion of southern and global flavors sounds like a flavor explosion i need to visit oxford mississippi!

Reply
Foodie123 July 15, 2023 - 1:08 am

mashama bailey’s restaurant sounds so cool i love how she combines local and classic ingredients in her dishes

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FoodExplorer July 15, 2023 - 7:03 am

ashley christensen’s take on comfort food is so unique and creative i’m dying to try her mac au gratin it sounds mouthwatering

Reply
JohnDoe94 July 15, 2023 - 12:36 pm

wow these chefs are amazing they really know how to cook southern food i want to try all their restaurants

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