27 influential people in Southern food everyone should know

Mike Jordan
Southern Kitchen

There are a lot of names to know when it comes to Southern food, including people who are new to the scene, veterans of the community, and those who are no longer with us but have legacies that ensure their names will live on.

Here’s our list of important people whose contributions to Southern cooking, foodways, education, business and charity have earned them a place in history’s cookbooks.

Edna Lewis

Though she passed away in 2006 at 89 years young, this granddaughter of formerly enslaved people grew up in Virginia, taught herself to cook, and rose to become one of the most prominent people to ever be associated with Southern food.

Known as the first African-American celebrity chef, she was also a successful New York City restaurateur. She opened the elite Café Nicholson in 1948, which was frequented by some of the biggest names in American life and culture at the time, including Gloria Vanderbilt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Marlon Brando and others, all who came by to taste her roast chicken with herbs and other dishes she insisted on cooking herself for a decade. And her cookbook, “The Taste of Country Cooking,” remains a standard-bearer for teaching the recipes and cooking styles of Southern food.

John Egerton

A founder of the Southern Foodways Alliance, Egerton’s legacy endures through the organization’s continuing work and the influence of his seminal book, “Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History,” along with the many journalistic contributions he made to Southern culture. Though he passed away in 2013, his tireless storytelling, in which he focused on the power of food to affect social justice, increase understanding and create racial rapprochement, are just some of the reasons he’s considered one of history’s most important figures in Southern food.

John T. Edge

The Southern Foodways Alliance director and celebrated author is recognized around the country as an authority on Southern food. From bestselling books like The Potlikker Papers to a series of articles published in The New York Times, he’s consistently sought for his extensive knowledge of the history and significance of Southern food inside and beyond the region.

Leah Chase

The list of who she’s fed at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant in New Orleans includes dignitaries and leaders of all sorts, from U.S. presidents Obama and H.W. Bush, to prominent Civil Rights Movement leaders, truly legendary musicians and more.

Sean Brock

You can’t have a serious conversation about the South’s top chefs without mentioning Sean Brock. His restaurant openings get national press coverage and journalists, food travelers and other hungry fans rush to the experience, whether they’re close to one of Husk’s locations or not. Having recently embraced a lifestyle of sobriety and sharing his struggle with addiction with the New York Times, his rock star status remains intact, and extends to not only restaurants and recipes, but even cookware and other kitchen items. (Our Shoppe includes brands used at Brock’s restaurants, including Boothill Blades.)

Ella Brennan

If you’ve been to New Orleans and never eaten at Commander’s Palace, you’ve done it wrong. As the most famous restaurant in the city, Commander’s played an integral role in making regional food worthy of serious culinary celebration and respect. It’s where true celebrity chefs Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse became nationally recognized, and it has been recognized for outstanding food, service and beverages for decades. And as the lady most responsible for this ride, Brennan is a living legend who deserves every lifetime achievement award she’s received (including those from the James Beard Foundation and Southern Foodways Alliance) and will continue to get under the leadership of her daughter Ti Martin and niece Lally Brennan.

Chris Hastings

Hastings’s Hot & Hot Fish Club took Birmingham and the South by storm, garnering multiple James Beard nominations before winning an award in 2012, the same year he beat Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America. The talented chef, restaurateur and Charlotte native also has a side business making lapel and hat pins out of feathers collected from his hobby of hunting in Nova Scotia.

Mashama Bailey

Everyone wants to know how The Grey earned its status as America’s best restaurant of 2017, according to Eater. Since the only way to find out for sure is by experiencing the menu, it looks like chef and owner Bailey will be feeding some of the country’s most inquiring mouths, and bringing a lot more attention to not only Savannah’s fantastic dining scene but talent throughout the wider South, particularly when it comes to African-American women chefs.

Toni Tipton-Martin

Another of the 50 founders of the Southern Foodways Alliance, Martin is part-food-activist and part-journalist. She was involved with the Let’s Move! campaign, part of Michelle Obama’s efforts to teach nutrition and healthy eating during her time as America’s First Lady. Her book The Jemima Code, which won a James Beard Award for reference and scholarship, is a collection and study of recipes from more than 300 rare African-American cookbooks dating back to the early 19th century.

Virginia Willis

The respected Southern chef and cookbook author, who we’re fortunate to have as a Southern Kitchen columnist, is a fixture of food television and a prominent spokesperson for Southern culinary classics. In addition to her “Cooking with Virginia” stories and recipes, she has a new book entitled “Secrets of the Southern Table.” We’ve ordered our copies early to be first in line when she’s ready for autographs.

John Currence

The highly praised chef and restaurateur is expanding his restaurant empire in Oxford, Mississippi, to strategic cities in Florida, Alabama and Georgia. He also has two excellent cookbooks under his belt — “Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey” and “Big Bad Breakfast” — along with a 2009 James Beard Award for Best Chef South.

Anne Byrn

The New York Times bestselling author, who sometimes goes by the alias “The Cake Mix Doctor,” has written 12 books, including her most recent, “American Cake.” A former Atlanta Journal-Constitution food editor, she is also the author of our own Taste of a Place column, in which she shares stories, recipes and cooking advice on classic and contemporary Southern dishes.

Ryan Smith

A former chef at Hugh Acheson’s Empire State South in Atlanta, Smith is the chef at Staplehouse, which is a subsidiary of The Giving Kitchen, a nonprofit charity that raises funds for restaurant industry workers in times of hardship.

After the loss of Ryan Hidinger, who along with his wife had the original vision to build and open Staplehouse but passed away from cancer before the restaurant could serve its first customer, there was considerable pressure to meet high expectations for the restaurant’s arrival.

But with the help of the community of restauranteurs in Atlanta and beyond, Smith, his wife Kara (Hidinger’s sister) and Hidinger’s widow Jen got the doors opened, and delivered upon the promise of revolutionizing fine dining as a force for immediate good. (All of Staplehouse’s post-cost revenue goes to The Giving Kitchen.) And Smith certainly succeeded, at least Bon Appetit said so, when the magazine named Staplehouse America’s Best New Restaurant in 2016.

Eddie Hernandez

Once a rock and roll drummer, Mexican-born chef Eddie Hernandez is the founder of Taqueria del Sol, a Southern-Southwestern-Mexican restaurant that started in Georgia and has since spread to Tennessee, with unbelievably good soft flour tacos, enchiladas and sides. The food crosses cultural borders without second thought; its sides range from turnip greens to charros beans and its mains feature staples of diets within and outside the South, including pork, whether twice-cooked in carnitas or smoked Memphis-style and tossed in tequila BBQ sauce. He also recently released a cookbook called “Turnip Greens & Tortillas” with noted food journalist, author and occasional Southern Kitchen contributor Susan Puckett.

Nina Compton

Many people recognize her from the controversial final result of Top Chef’s 2013 New Orleans season, but don’t weep for “Fan Favorite” Nina Compton’s second-place finish. She moved to the city from Miami after the show, and opened her first restaurant, Compère Lapin, in the Warehouse Arts District in 2015. It’s been a huge hit — so much so that she’s gone for seconds and opened a new concept called Bywater American Bistro in March. With her infectious smile and clear culinary talent, there’s sure to be more coming from the St. Lucia native, especially if her fans have anything to say about it.

Todd Richards

A mainstay of Atlanta dining, Richards made a name for himself in fine dining at elite hotel restaurants, such as The Four Seasons and The Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, before becoming executive chef and partner at prominent Atlanta eating establishments like The Shed at Glenwood, Rolling Bones BBQ, The Pig & The Pearl, White Oak Kitchen & Cocktails and his latest, Richards’ Southern Fried, which does a tremendous job turning out hot chicken. He’s also consulted at popular restaurants in Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, including One Flew South, which is considered one of the world’s best airport restaurants, and rapper Ludacris’ Chicken + Beer concept. Richards also has a cookbook called “Soul” coming in May, complete with a foreword by Sean Brock.

Dolester Miles

This is the pastry chef’s third year being nominated for a James Beard Award for her work at Birmingham’s Highlands Bar & Grill, where she’s worked with Frank Stitt since he first opened the restaurant at 28 years old. Whether she wins or not, she has garnered praise far and wide for her coconut-pecan cake, assorted tarts, cobblers and pies, and is an irreplaceable part of this national standard-bearing restaurant’s reputation.

BJ Dennis

Gullah Geechie food is much bigger than any single chef. But if it becomes the major thing we predict it will, it’ll owe a lot of credit to the work of this dedicated South Carolinian. Dennis drapes himself in the deliciously thick coastal cuisine and shares with the world its flavor and story of how an insulated group and its culture has survived generations of American history, from West Africa to the shores of the Southeast.

Rodney Scott

Though many a challenger will always emerge for the barbecue crown of the South, those who’ve eaten whole hog or chicken from Rodney Scott’s smoke pits will tell you that the South Carolinian still lays claim to some of the best you’ll ever eat. Consider his pulled pork a mandatory must-eat anytime you visit Charleston — everybody else does.

Ashley Christensen

She’s a Beard-winning chef, cookbook author and restaurateur in Raleigh, North Carolina, who turns Southern comfort food classics into creative, elevated inventions (everyone raves about the macaroni au gratin at her flagship Poole’s Diner) and transformed Raleigh’s downtown area into a serious food connoisseur’s paradise. But Christensen is also known for her insistence on standing up against industry misogyny, gender bias and other social issues, and she demands that guest collaborators visiting her restaurants abide by her rules of equal treatment for all customers and staff.

Katie Button

Being successful on her own could have been enough for Button, who has cooked around the world at some of the planet’s most celebrated restaurants, including Spain’s now-closed El Bulli, which at one time would receive over a million reservation requests per year. Now, with her own restaurants, Cúrate and Nightbell, in Asheville — Button is doing the sort of culinary work that brings international acclaim to a city previously best known as a beer haven. She’s also received four James Beard nominations since opening Cúrate in 2012, and is known for being unwavering in her support of small local farms, sustainable practices like composting, and liveable wages for all of her employees.

Frank Stitt

You can’t say you’re serious about having the best food in Birmingham, Alabama, without visiting Highlands Bar & Grill. The restaurant’s name sounds like the sort of place you’ll find on a highway in any city with modestly decent food, but one taste of the Southern-meets-French food and one evening experiencing the level of quality and service he had his staff have provided for 36 years, and you’ll change your mind. Stitt’s vision helped establish the Alabama city as a true dining town.

Meherwan Irani

Asheville restaurant Chai Pani’s revolutionary idea to bring Indian street food inside the restaurant not only worked in the North Carolina high country, but also made a big arrival in the Atlanta suburb of Decatur, where it instantly became known as one of the metro area’s best restaurants. Irani uses his flair for spice and storytelling through food to attract a wide spectrum of guests willing to cast aside preconceived notions around Indian food. It’s part of the reason he’s got four concepts between two states, including a East-Carolina-style barbecue restaurant called Buxton Hall.

Ford Fry

If you’re in Atlanta and haven’t had lunch or dinner at a Ford Fry restaurant, you must be actively avoiding him for some reason, and you should stop that nonsense. Fry’s seafood restaurant, The Optimist, was America’s Best New Restaurant in 2012, according to Esquire magazine, and he’s often lauded for his other area restaurants, such as the refined St. Cecelia in Buckhead, No. 246 in downtown Decatur, steakhouse and banquet hall Marcel in West Midtown (not far from his original restaurant JCT. Kitchen), and Tex-Mex post Superica. Fortunately you don’t have to stay in Atlanta to try his restaurants — he’s now in Houston, headed to Nashville, and who knows where else soon.  

David Bancroft

If you’ve ever been to Auburn, Alabama, you know there’s not much going on, other than the college whose SEC football program is pretty famous. But David Bancroft has turned the town into a place worth visiting all year thanks to his Acre restaurant. It takes local food sourcing and sustainability equally seriously by working with his nextdoor alma mater’s Meat Laboratory to make sure his guests eat responsibly raised meats, and growing many of the heirloom ingredients featured on the menu right there on the property.

Ronni Lundy

Her 2017 book “Victuals,” which details the foodways history of the Appalachian South, is just the most recent example of Lundy’s dedication to telling true stories about Appalachia and knocking down divisive myths. As a founding member of Southern Foodways Alliance, she’s actually been at it much longer, and she has written about Southern food for some of the country’s most respected publications, from Bon Appetit to Esquire.

Chuck Reece

As editor-in-chief of The Bitter Southerner, Reece is responsible for some of the South’s most incendiary published thoughts from writers all over. The online publication’s food coverage is especially flavorful, with insightful stories about Southern chefs like Nashville’s Deb Paquette, to social media wars for gumbo supremacy, and even Reece’s own thoughts on the proper way to make and eat tomato sandwiches, and in-depth coverage of the Southern Foodways Alliance.

Mike Jordan is Southern Kitchen’s former associate editor. He was also the host of our podcast, Sunday Supper. His work has appeared in a variety of publications including The Huntsville Times, American Way, Upscale, Time Out, NewsOne, Fatherly and Thrillist, where he served as the founding Atlanta editor. He lives in East Point, Ga., with his amazing wife and daughter, and loves writing, playing alto saxophone, cooking, craft beer, and cocktails. He is admittedly much better at these things than basketball, so never choose him for your pickup team.