This is part two of a two-part story from cheese expert Raymond Hook on the uses of cheese in Southern cooking. This week we focus on contemporary Southern cuisine to complement our previous installment on traditional Southern cooking.
I love eating at cutting-edge restaurants helmed by inspired chefs: chefs who respect their ingredients, follow seasonal availability and go local and organic whenever possible. Chefs whose food is creative, healthy and – above all else – flavorful. And naturally, chefs who love to use cheese. When I began to seek out Southern chefs who met these criteria for part two of my story on cheese in Southern cooking, two stellar examples immediately came to mind.
Chef/restaurateur/author Steven Satterfield is the chef and co-owner of the much-lauded Miller Union restaurant in Atlanta, best known for its emphasis on local seasonal vegetables and its unmistakably Southern essence. Satterfield has been nominated a whopping four times for the James Beard Award for Best Chef Southeast. I had the pleasure of working with the chef at Atlanta’s Floataway Café fifteen years ago, and even as a young cook his professionalism and resourcefulness caught my eye. I’ve always kept track of him and made it a point to try out any kitchen in which he’s worked while on his way to owning his own restaurant.
When I interviewed him about cheese in Southern cooking, Chef Satterfield told me he favored incorporating fresh cheeses into recipes in unusual ways while using aged cheeses for his cheese board. He likes to showcase aged cheeses without any alteration out of respect for the cheesemakers – since they’ve worked so hard to perfect their cheeses for 60, 90, or 120 days, these cheeses deserve to be tasted on their own. When I asked him for one of his most popular fresh cheese dishes, the chef didn’t hesitate in describing his field pea and peanut salad with lemon ricotta and charred tomato. He makes the lemon ricotta from scratch at his restaurant using whole milk and fresh cream, then zesting lemon rind into it for a fresh flavor. I haven’t had the chance to try this one yet, but I’ll be sure to taste it as soon as my travels next take me to Atlanta.
Another Southern chef who embodies the spirit of contemporary Southern cooking is Hugh Acheson, the renowned chef/restaurateur/author who owns four restaurants in Georgia. He was named Best Chef Southeast by the James Beard Foundation in 2012 and his book, A New Turn in the South: Southern Flavors Reinvented for Your Kitchen, won the Beard award in 2012. I’ve eaten several times at his restaurants as well as with the chef himself; his food has always reminded me of the refined, inventive country cooking I wished I’d eaten more of as a youth.
Over the phone last week, I asked Chef Acheson how he most likes to use cheese on his menus, and he said he often pairs unique house-made preserves and jams with each cheese on a cheese plate. As for composed dishes with cheese, one of his favorite recipes is his olive-oil-fried pain de campagne tartine with poached chicken, lemon-tarragon crème fraiche, Sweet Grass Dairy Asher Blue and fresh figs. The balance of textures in this dish is incredible: the crunch of the grilled bread, the herbal acidity of the crème fraiche and the rich, peppery bite of the blue cheese.
There are so many more stellar Southern chefs working with cheese today, and I look forward to exploring their offerings whenever I have the opportunity to spend more time on my home turf in the South. For now, rest assured that creative Southern cooking is alive and well and thankfully, that means there’s an abundance of great Southern restaurants that embrace cheese.