In the square-mile radius around the Bedford L station—a spot so fundamentally Williamsburg it spawned a painfully unselfconscious, eponymously named web series; a subway station that itself has Yelp reviews packed with self-deprecating references to “Hipsterville”; the city’s pounding, viscous heart of entitlement and man buns—there are 15 Southern-styled restaurants. On nearly every block, someone’s slinging fried chicken and waffles, biscuits, BBQ, or that most nebulous of cuisines, “home cooking.”
We’re a solid decade into New York’s Southern invasion. Since 2006, restaurants have been popping up in the city’s trendiest neighborhoods—Williamsburg is nearly matched in number of Southern spots by its twee older sister Cobble Hill, and its spiritual precursor, the East Village—that all follow the same master playbook: olde-tyme names like Mabel and Wilma, upcycled flour-sack napkins, mason jars, and twang. If you’re in a bar serving $3 PBR or Miller High Life, you can be sure one of these restaurants is lurking around the corner. It’s easy to call this boom just a trend, another bit of semi-ironic Americana drag for the New Brooklyn set, but its sheer staying power demands closer inspection.
Ten years is an evolutionary eon in restaurant life, especially now, when Cronuts can go from Dominique Ansel to South Korean Dunkin’ Donuts in just three months. Yet the Southern takeover of NYC today feels just as one-note, if not more so, than it did a decade ago. In this same period, chefs in the South, like Sean Brock and Ashley Christensen, have built entire empires dedicated to innovating their own cuisines, while organizations like the Southern Foodways Alliance have done amazing work tracing the intricately varied culinary histories of the area. So why do New York’s Southern restaurants still feel like a Disneyland ride through Song of the South?
Fried chicken, it turns out, is part of the problem. Fried chicken’s powerhouse popularity makes perfect sense in our current comfort-food regression. It ticks all the boxes: fried, fatty, filling, and familiar—even to people who have zero preconceived notions about the South. “As much as we like to believe we wholly own fried chicken, other cultures have fried-chicken traditions,” says Adrian Miller, culinary historian and author of Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine. And more so than burgers—the first blue-collar food to see a meteoric rise post-9/11—fried chicken in an American setting feels deeply nationalistic. It’s political comfort food.
But as a banner for the South, fried chicken falls short. To truly understand what the South has to offer, we must dig deeper into the reality of Southern regionality; “Southern food” itself is a dismissive generalization that means next to nothing. The South encompasses 16 states and 37% of the American population, on land as diverse as the Gulf Coast, Texas oil country, the Appalachian mountains, and suburban Florida. Its foods, too, are similarly diverse, from the deep African roots of the Lowcountry, to the European influence of Creole.
“Just because you have fried chicken on the menu doesn’t give you license to say that you cook Southern food.”
Fried chicken, on the other hand, exists not in a regional context but a personal one. Recipes have historically been passed down among families—brine or no brine, buttermilk, etc.—making it easy for any old carpetbagger to come along and claim his version is down-home authentic.
“Just because you have fried chicken on the menu doesn’t give you license to say that you cook Southern food. Southern food is as much about the story and the ingredients—in fact, more so about the ingredients—as the actual technique,” says Jean-Paul Bourgeois, executive chef at NYC’s Blue Smoke. After almost single-handedly pioneering the NYC BBQ scene when it opened in 2002, Blue Smoke under the Louisiana-born Bourgeois has turned its attention to the rest of the South’s culinary legacy, importing key ingredients like Mississippi Delta rice and Louisiana cane syrup to support dishes like seafood gumbo and cornbread madeleines.
“I don’t know of any school of thought that says Louisiana fried chicken tastes this way and Texas fried chicken tastes that way. So in that sense, you can claim whatever you want to claim,” says Lolis Elie, writer and editor of Cornbread Nation 2: The Best of Southern Food Writing. Save for the few restaurants that set out to mimic a very specific recipe, as Brooklyn’s Peaches HotHouse does with Nashville hot chicken, every fried chicken recipe in NYC is the figment of someone’s imagination—including our own.
Those northern expectations are part of what’s made southern headway so painfully slow. “I only started cooking fried chicken because it’s what people expected from a ‘Southern’ chef. Until five years ago, I’d never fried chicken before,” says Sarah Simmons, owner of Birds & Bubbles, who conferred with family members to track down an heirloom recipe her grandpa had originated. A South Carolina native, Simmons’ first NYC venture was City Grit, a “culinary salon” where she hosted chefs like Michael Solomonov and Paul Qui and cooked multi-course meals across a spectrum of styles. But it was her fried-chicken suppers that drew the most attention and led to her first standalone restaurant.
“Part of this is about northerners as a general proposition not finding the South particularly interesting. What we’re looking at in terms of culinary evolution is also a broader evolution in terms of attitude.”
Simmons and other New York chefs want to pick up the mantle of the modern South, but it’s our unwillingness to look beneath the surface of the stereotype that is limiting their creative evolution. At his first Brooklyn restaurant, Seersucker, Arkansas native Robert Newton aimed for something closer to an authentic Southern experience, pickling offbeat farmers’ market finds and incorporating French, Italian, and Asian influences into his upscale menu. Fried chicken began as a once-a-week special, but, as he explained to Brooklyn Magazine, “It got to the point when fried chicken comprised at least 40% of our orders.” In 2014 he gave up, shuttered Seersucker, and replaced it with Wilma Jean, a casual spot where two-thirds of the menu is fried, and chicken is the main attraction. As Times critic Pete Wells put it in his 2010 Seersucker review, “New Yorkers like their Southern restaurants in late-career Elvis mode: bloated, unhealthy, decadent, excessive, and hip-deep in kitsch.”
Outfits like Wilma Jean, Tipsy Parson, Burnside Biscuits, and Root & Bone lean heavily on the Southern grandma aesthetic, telegraphing a home-cooking vibe with ditsy florals and miniature cookware-as-tableware, like enamel skillets and cutting boards. Rough reclaimed wood and indoor weathervanes project a whitewashed ruralism, but it’s the homogenous menus that really ties together the dozens of these restaurants that fall into the mold. Along with the ubiquitous chicken (double points if it’s served with waffles, a soul-food twist rooted in Harlem), you can count on shrimp & grits, deviled eggs, and mac ‘n’ cheese.
Ten years into its NYC boom, we’re only inches closer to a legitimate understanding of what the South has to offer. “Part of this is about northerners not finding the South particularly interesting. What we’re looking at in terms of culinary evolution is also a broader evolution in terms of attitude,” says Elie. “Having already explored the frontiers of European, Asian, South American, and Caribbean food, suddenly New Yorkers are interested in exploring the exotic foods that are contained within the boundaries of the United States.”
In the hyper-educated New York dining community, we’ve happily embraced little-known regional distinctions for cuisines from around the globe, from Italian to Indonesian. Instead of the all-in-one Asian buffets that dot the Middle American landscape, we have restaurants dedicated to omakase, high-end Korean, Tibetan temple food, and Cantonese dim sum. But it still takes time. Think of this moment in the American imagination as the one right before Julia Child taught Americans French food was more than snooty waiters and duck a l’orange, or before Mario Batali opened up Italian food beyond red sauce and Chef Boyardee.
“I only started cooking fried chicken because it’s what people expected from a ‘Southern’ chef. Until five years ago, I’d never fried chicken before.”
“What many of us Southern chefs are trying to do, for right now, is tell the story of the very fundamental elements of Southern cooking. You want to get those out there first, because not everybody is going to understand really specific regional things,” says Bourgeois. “You can’t really go there yet.”
At a recent emerging chefs competition hosted by San Pellegrino, whose 50 Best list is still, like it or not, a kingmaker in the international restaurant scene, one student presented a deconstructed gumbo inspired by his Louisianan grandmother’s recipe. The northern judges on the panel couldn’t get past the deconstruction, exhorting him to “stay true to his grandma’s recipe.” Imagine a critic telling Enrique Olvera to “stick to tacos” upon tasting his cobia al pastor at Cosme, and you’re getting close to the levels of myopia.
So will we ever open our eyes? “We’re in such a foodie moment, I err on the side of yes, there’s going to be more regional distinctions drawn out,” says Miller. “But the critical factor is whether there’s going to be an evangelist for the cuisine.” Right now, star Southern chefs like Brock and Christensen are happy to stay below the Mason-Dixon line; even northern chefs like Tory MacPhail who’ve moved South to study at the source have stayed there.
“I truly believe that the greatest Southern food in America can come out of New York, but you have to come from a point of view, and—I hate to say this—you’ve got to kind of have some license to do it. You can’t just say, ‘I love fried chicken so here we go,’” says Bourgeois. Just as with any other cuisine, nailing it right requires doing your homework. Chefs like Olvera have proven that creative, knowledge-based cooking can transform a food’s reputation; now it’s time for someone to do the same for the American South.
When they do, one of the world’s great culinary regions will finally end up on the international stage—as it truly is, not as we imagine it to be. As Bourgeois says: “I feel it in my gut that we’re on the verge of something really spectacular.”