A Southern master proves that food is too good to forget by dishing out history with every bite. Written by Maggie Harney. Photography by Katie McGee.
Authenticity is a word that gets thrown around in the culinary world a great deal—it seems to attach itself to chefs with European culinary degrees, Michelin star reviews and state-of-the-art kitchen grills. But Chef Joe Randall is the genuine article: a Pennsylvania-born, trial-by-fire chef who learned Southern cooking by way of his mother’s spoon and his chef-uncle’s playful nudging. Today, Chef Joe’s originality is fused with an unassuming culinary mastery, which foregoes intricate presentation to demand an understanding we occasionally overlook—food, above anything else, should taste good.
The practice of hand-stirring melted butter into pie dough is a technique not oft used anymore, but off the rings go and his hands land in the mix. There’s no pretention here, no front. When the dough pops out of the fridge an hour later, complete with key lime cheesecake filling, the crust tastes good—really good.
“I’m a firm believer that we have to hold onto the old and authentic,” says Chef Joe, who hung up his cooking school apron a few days before Christmas 2016. “Southern cuisine is not a fad for me; it’s how I grew up.”
“Southern cuisine is not a fad for me; it’s how I grew up.”
It’s a lesson he’s now sharing beyond the walls of his school through the recently opened Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. There, Chef Joe’s name has been enshrined along with one of his colanders and his cookbook, A Taste of Heritage: The New African-American Cuisine. He’s in good company, being one of only four chefs revered—but it runs deeper than that. The late Grand Dame of Southern Cooking Edna Lewis, Leah Chase of New Orlean’s Dooky Chase’s, and Patrick Clark are all dear friends.
“I am honored to be there with all three of them,” says Chef Joe. “There are a lot of people who cook, but all four of us were restaurant chefs. We were fortunate, and that made it special for me.”
When the museum opened a week early for patrons and contributors last September, Chef Joe joined family members, along with President Obama, to share in the African-American contributions to American history, culture and community. For a boy born in Pennsylvania in a house of civil rights activists, who grew into the chef of the Harrisburger in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, by way of a kitchen in Atlanta, this was a proud moment.
“I can remember coming out of high school and never having any clue that African Americans had invented anything in this country,” says Chef Joe. “We’re catching up with the reality, and the museum is bringing the evidence to life.”
His brush with history is actually more than a swipe: When he was 11 years old, his mother made dinner for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When asked what she would cook for her guest, she famously answered, “All preachers like fried chicken.” She served a platter of crispy yardbird with mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, salad and pound cake with fresh berries and whipped cream. It’s the same fried chicken recipe Chef Joe uses this night during his cooking class, handed down from generations.
Chef Joe has seen his country endure and grow through many transformations and upheavals, including those groundbreaking moments in the 1970s when a decade-long fight changed chefs from a domestic position to a professional one. The one thing that hasn’t changed, though, is his gift with fresh ingredients and a good piece of chicken.
“There’s not a distinction between Southern cooking and African-American cooking,” he explains. “It is the foundation of Southern cooking, and it is the only true American cuisine, from appetizer to dessert.”
Until Dec. 23, when Chef Joe retired, he was at his cooking school every Saturday night, surrounded by people from as far away as Seattle and as close as Guyton. He welcomes them as friends and treats them like family as his expertise bubbles on the stove before him, a history book rising with steam and the smell of fresh pepper, cayenne and garlic. When the okra and tomatoes, crab cakes and chicken are nothing more than colorful gravy spots on our white plates, Chef Joe sits down in his chair as the room erupts in spontaneous applause for him, his wife Barbara and his assistant Maggie McDonald. It’s not like sitting down with a living legend; it is sitting down with one.
Chef Joe Randall
Former owner-instructor, Chef Joe Randall’s Cooking School
To truly live a tasteful life you must … enjoy your food. Don’t be afraid to taste things and establish your palette. Then you can eat the things you like.
My philosophy can be summed up by … Food doesn’t have to be complicated to taste good. Keep it simple and make it taste good.
To spice up your life … Make new friends, spend time with family. When you’re blessed to get to my age, it’s about enjoying the rest of it.
I love the smell of … freshly baked sticky buns and bacon.
My signature cocktail is …I don’t drink, but if I did—bourbon on the rocks.
My guilty pleasure is … I’m not telling on myself!
The secret to presentation is … The plate is a canvas; try to put color on it. But really, it has to taste good. If it doesn’t taste like nuthin’, it doesn’t mean nuthin’.
My theme song is … Nina Simone’s “I Love You, Porgie.”
My most creative ideas come when I … know I’m cooking for someone that cares for food.
I never leave home without my … pocketknife.
The five people at my dream dinner party include … Last weekend I sat down for dinner with Leah Chase, and if I never sit down with anybody else, that’s fine with me.
When I arrive at the Pearly Gates, I hope St. Peter serves me … some saffron rice, a pot of oxtails and some fried plantains.