Global and Southern cuisines come together for a fresh culinary perspective.
By Jennifer Walker-Journey
It was a creative combination of cultures: Alan Vera, chef de cuisine of Tavola at Sea Island, prepared to dollop pickled Georgia peaches onto a Sicilian pizza as part of a new offering on the menu.
“Tavola is focused on Italian cuisine,” he says. “But we’re in southern Georgia, [so] some of the dishes have to be inspired with Southern touches.” And there are few things more Southern than a ripe Georgia peach.
Fusing regional staples such as this with international cuisine—or adding a Southern splash to traditional ethic foods—is part of a movement in the culinary world that emphasizes the merging of local and global flavors. This technique is being embraced in kitchens throughout the country, including those at Sea Island, where chefs are incorporating elements from various cultures to create delightful new spins on classic dishes.
Combining Southern dishes with global foods and flavors is really not as far-fetched a notion as it may seem. In fact, while it is is trending now, chefs have practiced the art of fusion for centuries. Many classic Southern foods were originally created thanks to the convergence of multiple cultures.
“I feel like various international influences are part of what make[s] Southern cooking what it is today,” says Virginia Willis, a James Beard Award-winning chef and cookbook author. Her sixth and latest book, “Secrets of the Southern Table: A Food Lover’s Tour of the Global South,” dips into the melting pot that comprises the region’s diverse culinary heritage.
While researching the book, Willis and a photographer spent four seasons traveling through 11 states, from Florida’s Gulf Coast to the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, as well as the farms and fields of Louisiana, Georgia, Mississippi, the Carolinas, Texas and Tennessee. What she found were the cultural swatches that make up what she calls the quilt of Southern cuisine. “I really wanted people to stretch and reevaluate what they think of Southern food and who Southern people are,” she says.
A historian at heart, Willis describes the tremendous African influence in Southern food and cooking. This gave rise to popular regional dishes like fried chicken, barbecue ribs, collard greens, black-eyed peas, sweet potato pie and cornbread. Willis’ book, however, highlights a more traditional African dish: peanut stew. Her version, West African chicken stew with collard greens and peanuts, combines habanero pepper, fresh ginger, sweet potatoes, spices and crunchy peanut butter.
Immigrants who came to the South from other countries also created pockets of diversity that have influenced Southern dishes. For example, in the 1800s, Greeks flocked to Birmingham, Alabama, to work in the steel industry. Today, there is still a prosperous Greek community and a large number of restaurants in town that serve traditional Greek recipes along with distinctly Southern dishes.
In celebration of this blending of cultures, “Secrets of the Southern Table,” features a recipe for Greek okra and tomatoes, which is made with two of the South’s favorite vegetables along with Greek staples like fresh oregano and feta cheese.
Willis’ spicy Asian Cajun-barbecue shrimp embraces several cultures that have influenced New Orleans cuisine. She explains that New Orleans barbecue shrimp is derived from shrimp scampi, a traditional Italian dish that came to the South when Italians immigrated to the area from Palermo, Sicily. At one point in the 1800s, there were more Italians in New Orleans than in any other Southern state, she says. Since then, an influx of Vietnamese immigrants have introduced new flavors to the dish. Willis’ iteration, which is served on a grilled baguette, combines homemade Creole seasoning with Vietnamese flavors like ginger, lemongrass and fish sauce.
In recent years, Southern food has gained much-deserved respect across the nation as an essential part of American cuisine. Traditional regional dishes and flavors have traveled far beyond the Mason-Dixon Line, appearing on restaurant menus from New York City to California and gathering fans who may have never stepped foot in the region themselves.
Now, modern international influences are resulting in creative new flavor combinations, as the concept of fusion fare grows in popularity. Sea Island Executive Chef Daniel Zeal says adding global Southern dishes to the menus at the resort was a “natural progression”—and it just makes sense to reflect the area’s coastal Georgia roots.
“It starts with the understanding that our culinary team is from Mexico, Europe [and] all corners of the United States,” he explains. “My job has been to allow them to work within their comfort zone, but keep them grounded in the local style. It’s created a melting pot philosophy, using their talents while staying grounded on Southern as the defining style. And it’s exciting to see how the team is redefining what regional food looks like.”
Vera grew up cooking at the apron strings of his mother and grandmother in Mexico, and says he is able to embrace this combination of culinary customs at Sea Island because he finds resemblances among them.
“When I am asked how a Mexican chef became the head of an Italian restaurant, I simply explain that there are many cultural similarities between the two cuisines,” he says. For example, beyond sharing some similar ingredients and flavors, the two use food as a means of bringing family and friends together. And the same can be said about Southern fare.
Mixing it Up at Sea Island
Part of the charm of Southern cuisine is that it often conjures memories of grandma’s cooking. Vera designed the Pesche (meaning peaches in Italian) pizza to embrace not just ingredients from the surrounding Southern heritage, but also techniques that many Southern cooks practice, such as pickling, canning and preserving. He also places a huge emphasis on using locally sourced, farm-fresh ingredients.
For the Pesche pizza, Vera pickles peaches in white balsamic vinegar, Grand Marnier, honey, olive oil, bay leaves as well as salt and pepper, and also adds peach mostarda, an Italian version of chutney that Vera says is somewhat simple to make but takes about four days to mature. He also tops the pizza with crispy prosciutto made from attic-aged hams sourced from either Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams in Madisonville, Tennessee, or Col. Bill Newsom’s Aged Kentucky Country Ham in Princeton, Kentucky; arugula grown locally by Rafe Rivers of Canewater Farms in Darien, Georgia; house-made ricotta using cow’s milk from a dairy farm in Thomasville, Georgia; and Italian ricotta salata.
Finally, the edge of the Sicilian-style crust is sprinkled with finely shaved Parmesan cheese, then baked in a deep pan, which gives the crust a soft texture on the inside and a crispy edge on the outside. “When you bite into the crust, it resembles the cheesy and rich cracker-like crunch of cheese crisps, similar to what a Southern grandmother might serve guests to her house with a glass of sweet tea,” Zeal says.
Like Vera, Michael McKenzie, chef de cuisine at Sea Island’s Southern Tide restaurant, also credits his grandmother as a major source of inspiration. He says it’s important to look at regional cuisine “with a fresh, modern twist” and, for him, that all starts with the homegrown knowledge of Southern food that he learned from GG, who is from the small town of Cardell, Georgia. “She taught me to cook with passion and love, and that to nurture others through food is one of the greatest gifts you can give someone,” he says. “From salmon croquettes to a slow roasted bone-in chuck, my grandmother showed me everything. She taught me how to cook from the heart, to actually love what you do.”
At Southern Tide, Mexican, Asian and other international influences are creatively combined with local ingredients. For example, Mexican tacos al pastor get a Southern spin with pickled red onions and pork butt, the latter of which is smoked for a total of 12 hours and then tossed in an anchoite marinade along with fresh pineapple. Lettuce wraps, a popular Asian appetizer, get local flavor thanks to the addition of pulled pork and coleslaw.
When developing dishes like these, one trade secret is to utilize only the best ingredients across the region—something the concept of global Southern is rooted in. This includes components that not only make sense from a culinary perspective, but are also reminiscent of dishes that grandma used to make. “That’s the comforting aspect of it,” McKenzie says, noting that one example is his traditional country-fried chicken breast entrée with a splash of Southern Tide hot sauce, which is made with sambal oelek, an Indonesian chile sauce that delivers a strong, yet balanced, heat. “We’re utilizing ingredients that the global traveler might be familiar with—global food with Southern inflections,” Zeal explains. “And we’re getting a lot of positive feedback from members and guests. At a traditional resort like ours, there are certain things that have to stay the same way. But there is a percentage that … [we] can play with and really have the opportunity to create some memorable food.”