More from the series
The Skillet: How Black Cuisine Became America’s Supper
For the past six months, we have been interviewing North Carolina-based chefs, who generously shared their expertise in making recipes from Nigeria, the American South, Brazil, and Puerto Rico for a one-of-a-kind journey into how our plates came to look the way they do. Explore food of the African diaspora here:
Chef Greg Collier wants to tell the whole story of Southern cooking.
Collier, the executive chef and co-owner of Leah & Louise along with his wife and business partner, Subrina, has spent his career expanding the concept of Southern food. Leah & Louise, their fifth Charlotte-area concept that just passed its first year mark at Camp North End, is a prime example. There are grits, fish stew and fried chicken skins on the menu. But to call it soul food would be an error.
“I love fried catfish. I love mac and cheese. I loooove stewed collard greens and could eat them every day. But we don’t do it here. We might do pickled collard stems or slaw, or brine them in salt water overnight and throw them on a grill and serve on top of something as a garnish. It’s just not on my menu because that’s not the goal. The point is to pay homage to the chefs who came before me, but we’ve changed things to where it’s ours. Still, the lineage is visible,” Collier said.
He described a dish on the menu called Mud Island, a homage to fish and grits with a brown roux. Brown roux is found in gumbo and some jambalayas, but the slightly burned flour and butter mixture is used to flavor, not thicken. Collier uses catfish bones to make the stock, along with South Carolina rice grits and field peas.
“When we talk about Black food, aka Southern food, it’s a heritage conversation,” Collier said. “I want Black folks to know this is your food. It’s more than stewed collard greens. Collard greens as an ingredient are yours culturally; so that includes collard salads, collard slaw, pickled chow chow, as well as stewed collard greens. My mentor, Todd Richards, makes a collard green pesto and cooks oysters in it. That’s a part of growth. It’s reinterpretation.”
However, Collier said Black chefs are not often given room to push boundaries of the cuisine they pioneered.
A history of Southern food
Southern food draws from three main culinary traditions: ancient African foods and techniques brought via the slave trade, European dishes such as chitterlings and macaroni, and Indigenous spices and ingredients like corn. The biggest names in modern-day Southern food, however, aren’t nearly so diverse: Paula Deen and Art Smith, for example, have built million-dollar empires on food that was for centuries prepared by Black hands.
“No matter what, if you trace back far enough, you come to Black women cooking this food. Irish settlers came over and learned the techniques from our great-great-grandmothers,” Collier said. ”Tell the whole story. There’s pain, but also beauty associated with it. You have heritage, too, so bring your heritage to the table and stop telling the story of my heritage like it’s yours. I’d rather see the Russian or Irish interpretation of Southern food. That would be dope! It’s OK to tell the whole story.”
Collier grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, in a house just behind his grandmother’s. He stayed underfoot in the kitchen and the garden with her, starting to learn cooking from the age of 5. There, he learned the basics and importance of Southern cuisine, starting with a pot of grits.
“It’s simple, yet extremely important to Southern food and soul food,” he said. “Her most important and lasting lesson was you can’t cook good food fast. How much love can you put into food if you only cook it for 10 minutes? Take your time and do it right.”
The basics of grits
A lot of people grew up on Quaker instant grits, which feature a very fine grain and are blanched or precooked to shorten the time necessary to prepare them. It’s a fast way to get sustenance into rambunctious kids, but it’s not the height of flavor or texture. And in Charlotte, where many Northern transplants may never have tried grits before, it’s not a real reflection of the Southern specialty.
“At Leah & Louise, we do Southern food that is higher-end and thoughtful, but we do grits. Grits is just the base. But it’s an important base, so we take time with it,” Collier said.
Collier gets his grits from Farm & Sparrow. They’re an organic blend of coarse-ground white, yellow and orange grits that cook up buttery, textured and thick. His kitchen usually lets a pot simmer for two hours; when they’re ladled out, you can eat them with a fork. His breakfast-style grits are boiled in milk and butter, but dinner grits may feature a meat or vegetable stock, depending on the flavors desired, for a more savory kick.
Do your grits however you want, Collier advised. With one exception: “Sugar in grits is not a real thing. I don’t know why people do it. My wife does it, even though she thinks we make the best grits ever. I don’t understand it,” he said.
To keep grits from sticking to the pot, Collier said to bring the liquid to a boil first, continually whisking the grits so all the grains get a chance to hydrate. Once the liquid returns to a boil, lower the temperature to a simmer, but don’t walk away.
“That’s why grits stick, because people don’t stir them constantly. The heat comes from the pan’s bottom, so if they aren’t moving, the bottom layer is cooking them, not the boiling liquid,” he said. “The important thing is not to rush. All the starches have to cook out of grits, and that takes time. If someone is cooking breakfast for you and they get up when you get up, don’t trust them.”
Collier said his grandmother taught him that a good meal requires spending some time together, as well.
“And we don’t live in the times of our grandparents and great-grandparents anymore, but I miss that. I miss sitting down at the table and having conversations with friends and family. That was extremely vital. At some point I want to open a Sunday dinner restaurant just for that purpose.”
Working as a Black chef
Collier, a two-time semifinalist for James Beard Foundation awards (the Oscars of cooking), took a circuitous route to establishing one of the most recognized new restaurants in the US. After a half-hearted attempt at college, he returned to Memphis and bounced around. A friend’s father opened a wing restaurant and offered him his first kitchen job. He started out as a dishwasher, then moved up to food prep and eventually cooking.
“I read a book that said do what people know you for, and everyone knew me from the hot wings,” he said. So Collier enrolled in culinary school in Phoenix. He and Subrina married, and Collier was ready to progress, but he kept running into resistance.
“Opportunities don’t look the same for everyone. A lot of times the executive chef was different from me, and we wouldn’t share a connection so I didn’t get tapped for that next spot,” Collier said. “[They’d] see my talent but not see me as a leader, whereas this other guy whose skill set wasn’t as good as mine would get the promotion.”
The Colliers came to Charlotte in 2012, and in short order opened their first restaurant, an outpost in Rock Hill called The Yolk. Yolk II in Ayrsley and Uptown Yolk rapidly followed, then Loft & Cellar. While only Leah & Louise remains in operation, the Colliers have cemented their reputation as a culinary power couple — though Collier readily admits he’s not sure why it worked.
“We opened up in a place that wasn’t South End or Ballantyne or NoDa, not one of the sexy neighborhoods. Two people from Memphis opened a Black-owned spot in a pandemic that’s cooking Southern food but not soul food, based on Mississippi River Valley foodways? It doesn’t make sense. But Subrina created a space that spoke to her culturally of Memphis, and I created food that spoke to me culturally. And together we made an environment that was welcoming to Black clientele,” Collier said.
The juke joint-themed restaurant is a creative flight from the usual offerings. It’s very Black, but not at all monolithic. The dining room, menu, drinks program and music vibrate with subtle cultural references that envelope patrons in a story – not The Story, but one of many stories of Southern Black cuisine.
Chef Greg Collier of Leah & Louise
2 cups stock of choice (vegetable, chicken, etc.)
2 cups milk, plus 2 cups to thin mixture if necessary
¼ pound butter
½ cup coarse ground yellow grits
½ cup coarse ground white grits
2 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
Method of production
Bring milk, stock, butter, salt and pepper to boil.
Add yellow and white grits, stir until mixture returns to boil.
Turn heat to low and cover, stirring periodically.
Simmer until mixture is creamy and fully cooked, about 45 minutes.