Chef Todd Richards’ first cookbook “Soul” includes family stories and such recipes as Shrimp Hot Chicken Style. (Jenni Girtman / Atlanta Event Photography)

Todd Richards celebrates soul food with his autobiographical cookbook

Chef Todd Richards had two goals for his first cookbook, a photo-filled, autobiographical, 150-recipe tome called “Soul.” The first was to share the culinary legacy of his own family. “People ask why I’m a chef,” he says, “and it’s really because of my family and how we ate together,”

The second was a little more complicated. Richards hoped to break through the stereotypes that often surround black chefs and provide a better understanding of what he calls “the economics of soul food restaurants.”

Here’s the hard truth: While diners will gladly pay $30 or $40 a dish at high-end restaurants, they often expect to eat cheap when it comes to the culinary traditions of African-Americans and so-called developing nations. “Soul food should be as elevated as French cuisine or Japanese cuisine, just based off of technique alone,” Richards says. “Can you imagine how much knowledge and sophistication you need to make a plate of chitlins taste good?”

With his book, he hopes to change minds. “Soul” notes that while the history of African-American food is complicated, “born from an involuntary collision of cultures,” it also deserves honor. “You have to tell the story and personalize the story, too,” Richards says. “And you have to realize it’s not just one person’s story — it’s a lot of black chefs’ stories — but they’re all interpreted differently because soul food is not just one thing.”

Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, Richards’ family life focused on eating well. His parents and grandparents cooked traditional soul with great skill, but never limited themselves. They experimented with recipes from cooking shows, relied heavily on seasonal produce, and merged traditions based on whatever they had on hand: yakamein with collard greens, say, or fried catfish with smoked oysters. “My dad was a person of frugality, so if we had collard greens left over, they’d still go on the table with something we picked up from a Chinese food place,” he says.

In the decades since, the self-taught chef’s career has taken him from Kroger’s meat counter to five-star hotel kitchens. He’s scooped up multiple James Beard nominations and a stint on “Iron Chef,” and co-founded several Atlanta restaurants, including One Flew South and The Pig and the Pearl. In 2016, he opened Richards’ Southern Fried, a popular chicken and soul food stall at Krog Street Market. Last year, he started a pop-up dinner series called Analog with chef Guy Wong, where the two blend their respective culinary traditions with wine and cocktail pairings from Krista and Jerry Slater.

Soul emerged in the moments between. Richards would come home from work and spend late nights writing each page, formulating recipes as he went. Sectioned by ingredient, the book spans history and culture, delving into the lesser-known intersections between foodways. You’ll find recipes for hot water cornbread and recipes for sea urchin, a common ingredient on the West African coast. Peppered throughout are short, personal moments from Richards’ own life — the racism he experienced as a child while visiting family in Arkansas; the way his father started cooking healthier after his brother died.

As he awaits the book’s May 22 release date, Richards reflects on the new renaissance in food. Young chefs of color are carving out space to reinvent their own culinary traditions, and the powers that be are finally taking notice. “When I look at the James Beard list this year, I see more diversity than I’ve ever seen before, and it’s happening in the South,” Richards says. “That, to me, is progress.”

This progress sustains the chef at the end of each long day and keeps him moving forward, sharing his stories and recipes, speaking out about diversity in the industry. “For those who say, ‘Why do you talk about it so much?’ — it’s because I have to be responsible,” he says. “I have a whole group of people coming behind me. If I don’t beat the drum for them, then what is my legacy going to be made of?”

“Soul: A Chef’s Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipes.” Todd Richards. Oxmoor House. $35. 368 pp. Official release date May 22, 2018.

Insider tip

In most of Richards’ recipes, white and yellow onions are interchangeable, but red onions should only be used when specifically called for.

RECIPE

Mom’s Fried Catfish with Hot Sauce

“My mother made catfish on Fridays as part of her weekly rotation of dishes,” Richards says. “I was always amazed by the crispiness of her fish. She let it sit in cornmeal for about 5 minutes — a technique I use today.”

Serves 4

2 cups (16 ounces) whole buttermilk

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

1 tablespoon hot sauce (recipe follows, or use store-bought), plus more for serving

1⁄4 teaspoon granulated garlic

1⁄4 teaspoon granulated onion

4 teaspoons kosher salt

1 1⁄2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

1 1⁄2 pounds catfish fillets, cut into 2-inch pieces

2 cups (about 8 1⁄2 ounces) plain yellow cornmeal

1⁄4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

4 cups (32 ounces) vegetable oil

Combine the buttermilk, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, granulated garlic, granulated onion, and 1 teaspoon each of the salt and black pepper in a large bowl or large ziplock plastic freezer bag. Add catfish pieces; cover or seal, and refrigerate for 2 to 8 hours.

Whisk together the cornmeal, cayenne, remaining 3 teaspoons salt and 1⁄2 teaspoon black pepper in a shallow dish or pie pan.

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium.

Remove the catfish from the buttermilk mixture, and dredge in the cornmeal. Let stand 5 minutes.

Fry the catfish (large pieces first) in batches, until golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes per side. Drain on a plate lined with paper towels. Serve with additional hot sauce.

Serve with other fried foods; braised green, breakfast, potato, egg or bean dishes; green or tomato salads.

Pairs with Chardonnay, dry Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, amber beers, dark beers, hard ciders or IPAs.

Hot Sauce

2 teaspoons blended olive oil

3 red Fresno chilies, stemmed and coarsely chopped

1 jalapeño chili, stemmed and coarsely chopped

1⁄2 small yellow onion, diced

3 garlic cloves

1⁄2 cup (4 ounces) apple cider vinegar

1⁄4 cup (2 ounces) red wine vinegar

1⁄2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 tablespoon kosher salt

Heat the oil in a stockpot over medium. Add the chilies, onion and garlic; cook, stirring often, until tender, 6 to 8 minutes.

Add the vinegars and red pepper flakes. Bring to a boil; cover, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes.

Stir in the salt, and remove from the heat. Let stand 20 minutes.

Process the chili mixture in a blender or food processor until smooth, stopping to scrape down the sides. (Remove the center of the blender top to prevent the mixture from overflowing, and be wary of inhaling pepper vapors.) Makes 3⁄4 cup

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