Kenny Gilbert traveled the world before he ever left home. As a child, he grew up sharing meals with friends and neighbors whose food traditions came from all over the globe. It’s not surprising, then, that he developed a robust appreciation for flavors and ingredients that originated continents away from his home state of Ohio well before he became a widely recognized and award-winning Jacksonville, Florida-based chef.
Gilbert’s respect for the diversity of international foodways is apparent in the recipes and stories he shares in his new cookbook, Southern Cooking, Global Flavors. He encourages readers to draw on the flavor profiles they grew up with and to cook in ways that honor who they are and where they come from. At the same time, he never loses sight of his own origins. Whether it’s his mom’s biscuits (beloved of Oprah Winfrey, as Gilbert notes in the Flavor Bomb recipe on page 26) or his dad’s ribs (the standard against which he measures all others), the dishes he teaches his readers to cook are rooted in Black Southern cuisine and culture, and pay homage to the long history of African American creativity and innovation.
TLP: What made you want to write this kind of cookbook and why now?
Kenny Gilbert: I’ve been wanting to write a cookbook for a long time. [During] Covid, when everything was going down, I was going through all this stuff, all these life changes, and I felt like I had a lot to say. My story is mother born and raised in the South, dad from Chicago, I’ve got employees from all around the world, and I’ve really been nurturing this story and this talent for a long time. I was buying products from all around the world, and then I would take them and bring them into identifiable, Southern-international dishes. It kind of came to life.
TLP: How has culinary diversity shaped how you cook and the recipes you included in the book?
KG: My wife is Mexican American; I’m African American. Our families are from different parts of the country. We have some similar stories, but some that are different. If you open up our pantry, one side has Lawry’s Seasoned Salt, lemon pepper, garlic, and the other side has sázon, Goya products. Our families had to have these staples in order to cook these dishes.
Just about every household has diversity in terms of where they’re coming from. Maybe one side is Italian, one side is Polish. “I’ve gotta have pierogis. No, no, I’ve gotta have ravioli!” People who live in the South, they may love Southern food, but they want to have things that play into their flavor profile. That’s kind of how it all came to life: 10 iconic Southern dishes, flip these to take some ingredients that are common in your pantry and make it so they come to life for your family.
TLP: The idea of sitting across the table from someone who’s different from you is so important to the book. Has that always been part of the way you cook?
KG: It’s definitely who I am. I was always into cooking. My mom started me off from a young age. I grew up in very diverse neighborhoods. All my friends growing up had a different background. I remember going to friends’ houses, spending the night, and even at an early age what I was intrigued about was the ingredients that were different in the refrigerator. I remember Joe and Stacy and their mom, Linda—they were Italian, so their refrigerator had capicola, prosciutto, salami, mortadella, mozzarella, tomatoes and garlic and basil, this Italian dressing that was homemade. It was like, “What is this? This is crazy!” It stuck with me.
TLP: What’s your favorite recipe in the book?
KG: I think the recipe that kind of connects everything for me is my dad’s—Carle Anthony’s—ribs. That’s the foundation of me growing up. When I was in culinary school, I would come home and my dad would always have a batch of ribs, with his homemade sauce and a batch of slaw, a slice of white bread. That was comfort. That was me coming home.
Read more on how chef Kenny Gilbert honors his family’s food traditions with his Jerk-Spiced Spareribs with Coconut Guava Slaw.
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- by Erin Byers Murray
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