Black chefs, foodies on the roots of soul food and what it means to them: Part 4

ABC News’ Deborah Roberts and chef Alexander Smalls sit down with an eclectic group for a soulful dinner with lively discussion about soul food’s roots and what Southern food really is.
8:11 | 06/19/21

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Transcript for Black chefs, foodies on the roots of soul food and what it means to them: Part 4
For a lot of us, soul food boils down to more than just collard greens and cornbread. Each bite is a taste of black culture. The sweet and savory dishes serve up recipes from our rich ancestry. ABC's Deborah Roberts invites us into her kitchen for a juneteenth dinner party. I'm sure your potato salad 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 any minute. So I invited a few folks over for a juneteenth dinner co-hosted 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 going to 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 comfort. This is joy. 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. Hmm, that's true. Ruled the roost. That's true. What you got in there? 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. So excited. Thanks for coming over and cooking. Lorraine, hi! Our guests -- actress and foodie Lorraine toussaint, food journalist Kayla Stewart, and chef Pierre Serrao. We had do it up right with this incredible spread. Black-eyed peas, collard greens, chef's famous Carolina cabbage and corn slaw, and of course, 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 we are about to receive. And help us remember those that do not have. Amen. Amen. My sister Bennie, when my mom would make something like this, when she would have her first bite would go, "MMM, MMM, MMM, MMM, MMM." This food makes me want to dance. It's gorgeous. It's vibrant. The star of this meal -- the oxtails and okra. I'm getting down on these oxtails. They are amazing. That's not pretty eating. That's good eating. The braised tailbone of a cow that has been slow cooked for hours. A dish that has very humble beginnings. So much of this was what was left over from when we were slaves, because the tails were the parts of the animal they threw away. 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 shared? I would hesitate to say that anything that we ever had was shared. Growing up in the south, there's this concept of soul food, and then there's southern food. And I think southern food has been given the image of white food, when really southern food comes from Africans. Black chefs in the south have rarely been given the attention. In fact, up until in 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 that, as a black chef, that soul food is what you do. At ghetto gastro, what we aim to do is remove those stigmas that European food is the -- is the luxury. The pinnacle. For years, African-American chefs have been told their 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. Among them, singer Kelis. My milk shake brings all the boys to the yard and their life is better than yours Shes's part of a new generation of young black chefs connecting back to their roots. You just start to realize things taste really different than they do when you get them from the store. 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 frozen. It wasn't unhealthy. You think about Mac and cheese or 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's been fed to us. Food really is the universal language. It brings people together. It is the most communal thing you can do. Another one of those chefs changing the game, mashama Bailey, rewriting history at her Savannah restaurant, the grey. 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 that black chefs have gotten the proper credit. I think that 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, and I would 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 and that was the draw for me. The main dining area, once a whites-only waiting room. This old lunch counter, where blacks had to give up their seats for whites, now a fancy bar. When people come here to the grey, is this a soul food restaurant? No. I think it's labeled as 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. In the kitchen, chef mashama is frying up fish. Is that the heart of soul food, fried foods? No, I think the heart of soul food is probably the stewing of it, the slow cookery of it. Barbecue, whole hog cookery. Big pots. I think that's probably the heart of soul food. That's what you want. Ooh, that looks beautiful. Golden brown. Some smooth corn grits and a bit of her grandmother's creole sauce with that crispy fish laid on top. This looks fantastic. There you are my dear. Oh, my gosh. And this for you is soul food? Soul food, comfort food. My soul is happy. 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 in their recipes. And it would get very competitive sometimes. Very competitive. Even has their staple dishes, no question. And you walked in with pride as you carried it too. Yes, yes. That was our power. That was our currency. It was a way of feeling dignity and respect. I hope that those that are eating our food learn how to love black people. Food for the soul. Yes, thank you so much. As our feast came to a close -- I just want to say cheers. These souls were feeling grateful, happy and very full.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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