A wall of shelves near the entryway at Just Brunch, chef and restaurateur Keith Kash’s newest restaurant, is covered in bric-a-brac in various shades of blue. Among the pieces of pottery and nautical-themed items are several 8-track tapes and records from the collection of Kash’s mother, Lillian.
The nods to her in the Duluth restaurant’s decor are just one of many ways Kash keeps daily reminders of the biggest influence in his life around him: Her photo is the background screen on his cell phone, there’s a mural of her painted on a wall of his house, and the Mama’s Bahama Mama, a cocktail on the beverage list at Just Brunch, is named for her.
“Every day, I celebrate her,” he says. “Everything I do is based on how she taught me to do it. The way I live life is how she taught me to live.”
But for all she taught her son, the most important legacy the Alabama native left behind when she died in 2003 was what she taught him to create in the kitchen. After moving to Harlem, New York, Lillian worked long hours for the city, so Kash learned early on, with her guidance, how to cook for himself.
It was in the tiny kitchen of the two-bedroom apartment he shared with his mother and brother that the culinary seed was first planted, though it would take many years for it to take root as his career.
He learned to cook scrambled eggs and steak (”in those old ovens, you could just throw a steak in the broiler drawer with butter and seasonings and it would cook itself,” he says), and every summer he observed his Aunt Willie putting up preserves using peaches and pears that grew in her yard.
Most notably, Kash recalls watching his mother make cakes and desserts, including three ways of making peach cobbler. Her “addictive” pound cake, would often be eaten within hours after the loaves cooled on the counter.
“I always wanted to lick the bowl,” he remembers. “But I didn’t just want to lick it. I wanted to know what was in it.”
That curiosity about food would stay with him even as it took a back seat when Kash entered the Navy at 17. Though he didn’t get to cook often during his decade in the service, he hosted a Thanksgiving feast for his Navy friends using his mother’s method for cooking turkey, by placing it in an oiled paper bag before putting it in the oven.
He earned a college degree while in the service and later worked for several years in network engineering before moving to Atlanta in 1999 and starting his own tech company. But food was never far from his mind. As he found success designing websites for musical acts including OutKast (while raising two sons and serving as a volunteer basketball coach), he socked away money to open his own restaurant.
When a space opened up in Gwinnett County, he jumped at the opportunity, despite never having worked in a restaurant before.
“I’m spontaneous,” he says. “I knew I could do it, and I also knew there were voids that hadn’t been filled in this part of town. A lot of people were moving here that wanted authentic Southern food. I went home and told my family, ‘We’re opening a restaurant.’”
He visited soul food restaurants across the city, from West End to Locust Grove and Decatur to Cascade, “to see what they were doing. We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel,” he says.
He opened his first restaurant, Who’s Got Soul Cafe, in 2000 in Lawrenceville, with a menu featuring classic dishes like fried fish, mac and cheese and sweet potatoes.
His (now ex) wife, Crystal Barnes, ran the restaurant during the day while Kash continued to work his day job and relieved her at night. There were some initial stumbles, but Kash said his confidence in the concept kept him going: “I didn’t exactly know what I was doing, I just knew I wasn’t going to fail. I just needed us to stay in business long enough for me to figure it out.”
Enter Jesse Bates, a veteran chef and owner of local restaurants including Hambones Soul Food, who stopped by Who’s Got Soul one day after getting a craving for fried fish and began sharing his expertise with Kash.
“He was the answer to a lot of questions I didn’t even know I had,” Kash says. It was Bates who introduced him to the idea of food science, which Kash applied to dishes on his menu, from braising sweet potatoes instead of baking them to get better control over their texture, and using corn starch in place of flour as a thickening agent.
“I was hard on Keith,” Bates says. “I would never let him slack or cut corners. I made him stay consistent. But the key was, I tapped into his vision, and when I did that, I was able to help take him anywhere he wanted to go. If I leave here tomorrow, part of my legacy is what I’ve done with him. He’s like a son to me.”
Bates’ direction, coupled with what Kash learned from his mother, enabled Kash to subvert the reputation Southern cooking has for being unhealthy. He uses only fresh ingredients and his own spice blends to make the comfort food dishes he offers somewhat healthier.
“I’m very cognizant that perception is real,” he says. “As soon as people say Southern cooking, the first thing people think is a half a pig in greens. There are several types of healthy fats. It’s my job to know enough about food science, flavors and what goes well with what to be able to select certain things to go in certain foods.”
Who’s Got Soul’s success eventually enabled Kash to quit his software engineering job to manage the restaurant full-time and expand with a Decatur location. In 2021, he opened Who’s Got Soul Southern Grill in Duluth, which offers the staples from the Who’s Got Soul menus, along with more grilled items like lamb chops and blackened salmon.
In the meantime, he also worked as a special event chef for former “Real Housewives of Atlanta” star Lisa Wu, even appearing on the show.
He also provides catering services for the city of Atlanta, which prompted him to open Cafe 55, a 5,000-square-foot cafeteria inside Atlanta City Hall that “served a little bit of everything,” but it closed during the pandemic.
“Along my journey, all the stops I make along the way, I carry things with me,” he says. “Everything I learn from one experience is part of my next experience ... Some of the ideas I had at Cafe 55 I used at Who’s Got Soul Southern Grill and Just Brunch.”
Just Brunch is his latest venture. It opened in October after he noticed there was a dearth of all-day brunch restaurants in Duluth.
“I wanted to provide a certain level of elegance that you tend to only get in the nighttime at a steakhouse, but why can’t we have that in the daytime with brunch?” he asks.
Just Brunch also allows him to further flex his muscles in the kitchen, with the inclusion of menu items like Korean fried chicken and waffles and salmon hash.
“Sometimes the industry tries to push Black chefs toward a specific genre of food, as if we’re unable to curate different types of food,” he says. “Because I’m a foodie first, I like to be able to cook what I like to eat. I can cook Italian, Asian. And I can cook my ethnic food, which is soul food. There is no one food I gravitate toward, other than healthy.”
Next up is Juiced Harlem, a juice bar in his native city that he’s opening in December with friends and which he hopes to bring to Atlanta. Kash leans heavily on friends and family to help manage his various businesses, including his ex-wife, who serves as a vice president for his restaurant group, and his son Rynel Barnes, who manages the Lawrenceville location.
In the next few days, Kash will start making the sweet potato pies he only offers twice a year at the holidays, yet another homage to his mother. After his long journey to success, how does Kash think Lillie Mae would feel about his career as a chef and restaurateur?
He pauses for a moment before answering, looking at her picture on the background of his phone, then smiles.
“I think she’d be really happy,” he says.
Just Brunch. 1950 Satellite Blvd., Duluth. 404-400-8989, justbrunchatlanta.com.
Who’s Got Soul Southern Cafe. 1098 Herrington Road, Lawrenceville. 770-995-6544 and 3818 Covington Hwy., Decatur, 404-289-0116. whosgotsoulcafe.com.
Who’s Got Soul Southern Grill. 3580 Breckinridge Blvd., Duluth. 470-268-3761, wgssoutherngrill.com.
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