Atlanta chef Todd Richards shows his roots in a new book and a menu fit for Mom
The inside covers of chef Todd Richards’ new cookbook are covered with a collage of childhood photos. In one, a young Richards poses with a homemade birthday cake. In another, his grandmother, Mary Wilson, tends to hot dogs charring on a grill.
“This is my mom here,” says Richards, extending a hand to the book, which sits open on the counter in his sun-dappled Grant Park kitchen. Valoria Viola “VV” Richards stands, smiling and squinting at the sun with one hand on her hip, in front of the brick exterior of Richards’ childhood home on the South Side of Chicago.
The photos are a fitting tribute from the Atlanta chef whose culinary training began with his family’s home-cooked meals, veritable feasts that fed not only his immediate family but also aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, friends, and neighbors.
“We cooked together, ate together, and celebrated together,” Richards explains. “If people didn’t feel like leaving the house, my mom would take plates over. She never wanted anyone to go without,” he says, dredging pieces of catfish in cornmeal and setting them aside for five minutes before frying—a crispiness trick he learned from his mother.
And so when the 24-year-old Richards arrived in Atlanta in 1992, he knew how to butcher a chicken, debone a fish, and smoke meat. He was a shoe-in at his first culinary job, in the meat department of a Kroger supermarket, and went on to hold executive chef positions at the Four Seasons Hotel Atlanta, the Ritz- Carlton Buckhead, and the Shed at Glenwood before co-creating the Pig and Pearl and One Flew South. In 2007, he competed on Iron Chef America. In 2008, as executive chef of Seelbach Hilton’s Oakroom restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky, and in 2013, while at White Oak Kitchen and Cocktails, he was a James Beard award semifinalist for Best Chef: Southeast. His latest venture? Richards’ Southern Fried, a raved-about hot chicken food stall in Atlanta’s Krog Street Market.
“It’s been a delicious journey,” Richards says. “And it all harkens back to the celebration of food and food culture that my parents instilled in all of us growing up.”
Richards began working on Soul: A Chef ’s Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipes in December 2016 with the goal of creating a go-between of his two favorite cookbooks, Edna Lewis’ The Taste of Country Cooking and The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller. But that wasn’t the only impetus. “I wanted to answer the age-old question of ‘where are all the black chefs?’ I know at least twenty of them right now who are absolutely fabulous and have changed the culinary industry across the board.”
Richards worked on the recipes for a year, using the seasons as his guide. Each chapter focuses on a single main ingredient or category, from berries, corn, and tomatoes, to stone fruit, rice and beans, and roots.
“Collards had to come first,” he says. And not just because they were in season. “They’re the most iconic soul food item there is.” The chapter begins with collard greens and smoked ham hocks and ends with collard waffles alongside brined trout and maple hot sauce.
Much like Richards’ own culinary arc, each of the chapters is a journey that starts with the familiar and graduates to something more complex. Dishes like buttermilk-rich cornbread provide comfort, while others, such as pork jowl with brussels sprouts slaw, break down any boundaries you might have around, say, pig cheeks or coleslaw.
Many dishes, like the ones he shares here, are right at home at the brunch table, further evidence of his family’s influence.
“A lot of our parties were brunch-focused,” he says. “Around 5 or 6 in the morning my dad and I would get the fire started. Ribs came first, then sausages, then chicken. My dad was primarily the keeper of the meats and my mom was primarily the keeper of the side dishes. Other people chipped in with cakes and pies, and would start arriving around noon.”
As journeys go, Richards’ is far from over. “My goal is to open up more opportunities to employ people and see soul food sharing a deserved space at the table with other time-honored cuisines. Cooking with the spirit of your ancestors in harmony with the ingredients you choose—that’s what soul food is about,” he says, stirring a bowl of peach and ginger relish in a vintage Pyrex mixing bowl.
“It’s honoring our ancestors, telling their story, and moving the conversation forward in a progressive way.”