For the Taking the Lead series, we asked leaders in various fields to share insights on what they’ve learned and what lies ahead.
The canon of soul food and Southern food is the product of a melding of American ingredients and memories of dishes from places once called home. When, over the course of decades, the Great Migration moved thousands of African Americans across the country toward the North and the West, foods like fried chicken, collard greens and black-eyed peas traveled as well, creating the genre known as soul food. Soon it was found in major cities across the country, offering those who had migrated — as well as those who hadn’t — a taste of those Southern staples. Soul food, the food historian Adrian Miller said, is “an immigrant cuisine and ultimately a national cuisine.”
Now more than a hundred years removed from the beginnings of the Great Migration, the chefs Shenarri Freeman, 30, and Erick Williams, 48, are celebrating and redefining soul food. Ms. Freeman, raised in Richmond, Va., is the executive chef at Cadence, a plant-based, Southern-inspired restaurant in Manhattan, and will soon be opening Ubuntu, a vegan African restaurant, in Los Angeles.
“People are always surprised when they find out my food is vegan which says a lot about how we view soul food and southern food,” she said. “Cooking vegan, plant-based southern, soul food is not anything new. It’s always been the way of life.”
Mr. Williams is a James Beard award-winning chef and owner of Virtue, Mustard Seed Kitchen, Daisy’s Po-Boy and Tavern and the fast-casual Top This Mac N’ Cheese, all in Chicago, where he was born and grew up. At each of his restaurants, he hands down the story of his great-grandmother’s Southern-heavy home kitchen in Chicago. She “allowed me an opportunity to be seen, heard and validated through her hospitality growing up,” he said.