Two Chefs on Keeping Alive, and Redefining, Soul Food

Shenarri Freeman and Erick Williams are celebrating the cuisine in their own ways at their restaurants in New York and Chicago.

Two Chefs on Keeping Alive, and Redefining, Soul Food

In the series Taking the Lead, we asked leaders from various fields to share their insights about what they have learned and what lies ahead.

Soul food and Southern cuisine are the result of a fusion of American ingredients with memories of food from places that were once home. Soul food was born when, over decades, thousands of African Americans moved to the North and West. Fried chicken, collards greens, and black-eyed beans were among the foods that accompanied them. It was soon found in all major cities, giving those who had moved to the South -- and those who hadn’t -- a taste for these Southern staples. The food historian Adrian Miller stated that soul food is "an immigrants cuisine, and eventually a national cuisine."

Shenarri Williams, Shenarri's 30-year-old sister, and Erick Freeman, her 48-year old brother, have been redefining and celebrating soul food for more than 100 years. Ms. Freeman was raised in Richmond Virginia and is now the executive chef of Cadence in Manhattan. She will also be opening Ubuntu in Los Angeles, a vegan African-inspired restaurant.

She said, "People are always shocked when they learn that my food is vegan. It says a lot about the way we view southern food and soul food." "Cooking plant-based, southern, soulful food that is vegan and vegetarian is nothing new. It's been the way of living for centuries.

Mr. Williams, a James Beard Award-winning Chef, is the owner of Virtue and Mustard Seed Kitchen in Chicago. He also owns Daisy's Po-Boy & Tavern, and Top This Mac N' Cheese. In each of his Chicago restaurants, Williams tells the story of how his great-grandmother prepared Southern food in her home kitchen. He said that she "allowed [him] to be heard, seen and validated by her hospitality growing up."