8 Southern Chefs and Culinarians Sustaining the Legacy of Edna Lewis

Virginia food scholar, interpreter and chef Leni Sorensen reminisces about the time she met ‘the grand dame of Southern cooking’ Edna Lewis. “I was a guest at a dinner hosted by Nikki Giovanni at Virginia Tech, and Edna was there also.” The two women shared a brief exchange about foodways and Virginia cooking, an encounter cherished by Sorensen.

Over the years, Leni Sorensen has enjoyed a casual and warm relationship with Edna Lewis’ sister, Ruth Lewis, who has shared that the Lewis family bought few ingredients from a local grocer in Unionville, Virginia, and grew their own foods. The family raised animals for food, grew vegetables and herbs, cooked from scratch as well as practiced butchery. “They literally ate from the land, which informed their food preparation and Edna’s lifelong advocacy for fresh and organic foods. Home provisioning was an important part of their daily living.”

8 Southern Chefs and Culinarians Sustaining the Legacy of Edna Lewis

Dr. Sorensen, who is the former senior director of African American research at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, performs some of the same tasks on her own farm. Considered an elder interpreter of Edna Lewis’ work, she is also known as the mentor and confidant of a cadre of contemporary African American culinary professionals such as Carla Hall, Michael Twitty, Therese Nelson, and Toni Tipton-Martin. She believes that to understand Edna’s legacy, it is best to begin with the food. “Edna’s food philosophies were rooted in the way she was raised and how growing food was a community endeavor that also fed her family but others as well.”

Chef Dr. Leni Sorensen

In Edna Lewis’s words, “Women didn’t ‘learn’ how to cook – you were born knowing how.” Dr. Sorensen and the seven women below are doing more than their parts to promote the good works of Edna Lewis; they are demonstrating what they were “born knowing.”

James Beard nominee Mashama Bailey is the executive chef and a co-partner of Savannah, Georgia’s The Grey restaurant, but she is also chairman of The Edna Lewis Foundation’s board.

Chef Mashama Bailey

Representing northern Louisiana foodways is chef Hardette Harris, who is promoting the foodways “Us Up North” with food tours and demonstrations. It is her research and menu that informs the first official meal of Louisiana that is not Creole or Cajun. Her tireless work garnered her distinction as Louisianan of the Year (2017).

Chef Hardette Harris

Atlanta-based Shaun Chavis is a James Beard award-winning cookbook editor and marketer, who is also a trained chef. Shaun’s podcast Forklore enables her to explore heritage and food via personal conversations with food workers such as Jacques Pépin, Eddie Hernandez, Todd Richards, and Tunde Wey.

Atlanta chef Cassandra Mason is a gourmet cooking instructor who strongly believes in feeding people as an extension of hospitality, love and community. Her musings on life, lifestyle and food can be found on her blog, TheChef in Pearls.

Enita Thomas is the co-owner (with husband Isaiah) of Atlanta’s soulful and very Southern Mouthfeel Culinary Company, which is growing in reputation for their contemporary takes on Southern cuisine and their use of fresh ingredients in what is known as urban farm to table cuisine.

Chef Jennifer Booker is a French-trained culinarian, cookbook author, and cookery instructor in Atlanta, Georgia. Like Edna Lewis, Booker is a champion for fresh, seasonal ingredients and cooking from scratch. Her modern takes on Southern cuisine promotes healthy food preparation.

Chef Enrika Williams of Fauna Foodworks, is a Mississippi native who decided to bring her culinary travel experiences from Italy to Mississippi that includes a menu filled with international street-style cuisine to her Jackson, Mississippi restaurant in Cultivation Food Hall.

It has been thirteen years since the death of Edna Lewis; her legacy grows and is continued in the work of many, but none as significant as contemporary Southern black women chefs and culinarians. It is as if Edna Lewis has a gentle hand on the backs of these women (and others) that are forging paths of their own in Southern cookery and community.




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