Young Black chefs across the country connect over the origin of ‘soul food’

ABC News’ Deborah Roberts co-hosted a Juneteenth dinner with friend and renowned chef Alexandra Smalls. Many ‘soul food’ dishes hold historic importance for what it means to be Black in America.
6:51 | 06/19/21

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Transcript for Young Black chefs across the country connect over the origin of ‘soul food’
will go with my chicken. This is great, oh, I can't wait! When I think of soul food, three things come to mind. Good friends, good conversation, and of course, good food. This is fun. Can't wait for our guests to get here. I know, they'll be here in a minute. Reporter: So I invited folks over for a juneteenth dinner cohosted with my friend, renowned chef and opera singer Alexander Smalls. Wade in the water wade in the water children wade in the water god's gonna trouble the water Oh my gosh, you're taking me back home in Georgia for me. When you're in the kitchen, Alexander, what do you feel? This is home. This is comfort. It's also a conversation with the ancestors. Oh, my. Lovely. When I was a kid, I understood that the person who cooked the food had the power. Ruled the roost. That's true. What you got in -- oh, macaroni and cheese, that was a Sunday staple at my house. Mac and cheese. Okay, I'm glad I wore a loose dress today because I'm going to need it, I'm so excited. Thanks for coming over and cooking. Oh, Lorraine, hi! Reporter: Our guests, actress and foodie Lorraine toussaint. Food journalist Kayla Stewart. And chef Pierre deseaux. We had to do it right with this incredible spread. Black eyed peas. Collared greens. Chef's famous cabbage and corn southern fried chicken. So what does this table mean for you? Thanksgiving. People of color owned nothing. There were times we didn't own ourselves. But we owned that recipe. And to be able to create something that had a sense of bountifulness is what a table like this really means. Gracious lord, make us truly humble and thankful for the food which we're about to receive and help us to always remember those who do not have, amen. Amen. This food makes me want to I know, right? It's gorgeous, it's vibrant. Reporter: The star of this meal, Alexander's oxtails and I'm getting down on these oxtails, they are amazing. That's not pretty eating, that's good eating. Reporter: The braised tailbone of cow that has been slow cooked for hours, a dish that has very humble beginnings. So much of this is what was left over from when we were slaves. Because the tails were the parts of the animal they threw away. Reporter: What was once scraps from a slavemaster's table, now a delicacy adopted by other cultures. Do you think the African influence on food has been shared or appropriated? You can track our influence through the transatlantic slave trade. Shared? I would hesitate to say anything we ever had was shared. Growing up in the south, there's this concept of soul food, then southern food. I think southern food has been given the image of white food, when really, southern food comes from Africa. Black chefs in the south have really been given the attention. Reporter: Up until the '50s, cooks were typically domestic workers, and most of them black. Then James beard made white male chefs fashionable. He made it glamorous. 30 years ago I stood in this space almost by myself. In order to move forward, I had to own. Not just a seat at the table, but the whole damn table. People definitely assume as a black chef, soul food what is you do. At ghetto gastro, we aim to remove the stigma that the European food is the luxury, the pinnacle. For years African-American chefs have been told food wasn't worthy. So nothing gives me more pleasure than to see the young chefs now who really are putting it on the line, telling their stories through food. Reporter: Among them, singer kalease. My milkshake brings the boys to the yard Reporter: She's part of a new generation of young black chefs connecting back to their roots and finding a new path forged by farming. Soul food really came from the garden, it came from the farm. It wasn't canned, it wasn't unfrozen, it wasn't unhealthy. Think about Mac and cheese, think about a candied yam. Everybody wasn't eating like that every day, those were the treats. I think our conception of soul food has become warped because of the narrative that has been fed to us. Food really is the universal language, brings people together. It is the most communal thing you can do. Reporter: Another one of those chefs changing the game, Michelle mabailey, rewriting history at her Savannah restaurant, the gray. You are a black female chef in an industry that is pretty much dominated by white male chefs. What has that been like for you? I don't think black chefs have gotten proper credit. I think we've been on the railroad cars, and we've been in homes, cooking food like this, for generations. And I think now I have an opportunity to create my own dialogue. So I will call that soul food. How would you describe this restaurant? I describe the restaurant as beautiful. I think it's a relic. It once was a segregated bus station. And that was the draw for me. Reporter: The main dining area, once a "Whites only" waiting room. Now a bar. When people come here to the grey, this is a soul food restaurant? No, I think it's labeled a southern restaurant. I want to push the envelope a little bit, and I want to create a little bit of a melting pot when it comes to southern food, American food, black food, northern food. Reporr: Comfort food is so much more than what's on our plate. Food has been the thing that has soothed our souls. I was able to comfort my family. Chef Alexander, you said that your cooking cred came by your potato salad sometimes?- Black folk took particular pride in their recipes. And would get very competitive sometimes. Absolutely. Everybody had their staple dishes, there's no question. Pride. Yes, yes. Again, that was our power. That was our currency. It was a way of feeling dignity and respect. Reporter: As our feast came to a close -- I just want to say cheers. Reporter: These souls were feeling grateful, happy, and very full. To our ancestors. To our ancestors, I love

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