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Painted in Waterlogue

Beyond the presentation, far removed from the quality of the china, distanced from the appointments on the tabletop, a great restaurant presents food that has soul. It is very easy to separate restaurants that have it from those who clearly don’t. Soul is one of those characteristics that are somewhat difficult to describe, yet we know when it is present. It certainly includes great flavor, but it goes well beyond even that.

We often associate soul food with those traditional items that are prepared as part of the African American culture, but giving that – what does it mean and how can this concept of “soul” be applied to the cooking process used by others. Soul Food is sometimes referred to as comfort food, foods that we are familiar with and prepared in a traditional manner. Is this enough to qualify as food with soul?

“A recipe has no soul. You, as a cook, must bring soul to the recipe.”

Thomas Keller

African American traditions in cooking are drawn from a history of working with ingredients that were available and affordable, preparing them using the methods passed down from previous generations, and adding the love of family to every step in the process. So, based on this definition, one could extrapolate that cooking with soul will include:

  • Adding your signature to a dish
  • Including a bit of romance
  • Caring about the ingredients, the process, and the people that the food will nourish
  • Protecting traditions and history
  • Never allowing any food produced to be contrary to these simple principles

One of the most interesting aspects to cooking with soul is that when it is present, all other trappings of the dining experience become far less important. I am sure that each person reading this article has enjoyed the experience of eating food prepared in this manner. It might be even more prevalent in the home than it is in the restaurant, yet it is certainly possible for the restaurant experience to be soulful.

I am far too often disappointed with restaurant food that is void of any soul. It is always obvious when a dish is presented that lacks care, attention to basic detail, lacking in flavor, improperly prepared, and free of a definitive signature. It takes one bite to know that cooks are ill-prepared to execute their craft, the ingredients were improperly cared for or purchased without attention to their importance, taste is not a consideration, and no one verified the quality of a dish before it left the kitchen. This lack of caring, lack of soul, hurts every other cook and chef who is serious about his or her work.

I just returned from a business trip to Miami and, as is always the case, I was looking forward to trying the food of this ethnically diverse city. Granted, it may very well have been a case of not knowing which restaurants to select, but in all cases I found the food to be lacking the soul that I had expected. Parts of the experience were great – the views, the energy, and even the friendly service, but the food was not memorable. This mystery ingredient of “soul” may seem nebulous and hard to qualify, but I think that it begins with some very basic realities:

  • Cooks need to understand the foundations of cooking methods and commit to consistently adhering to time proven technique.
  • Cooks need to build educated palates. They need to know how the end product should taste and how to get to that end game as variables are put in their way. Seasonality of ingredients, sources of product, timing, etc. can all confuse the process of cooking. If a cook’s palate is fine tuned and he or she understands how cooking works then adjustments can be made to reach the same goal.
  • Buying right is of consummate importance. Knowing the source, developing relationships with growers and vendors will help to ensure that you buy the best quality ingredients.
  • Part of the chef’s job is to relay the history of a dish and the traditions associated with its preparation so that cooks can vividly see “why” a menu item must be prepared a certain way.
  • When hiring cooks it is imperative to determine whether or not they “care” about cooking and the guest who consumes what is made. A chef can always build on a cook’s skills, but you can’t teach him or her to care.
  • Knowing that mistakes are inevitable, an important role of the chef is to ensure that those mistakes never leave the kitchen. The role of the expeditor is essential.

“The key to success in a restaurant is to buy the best raw materials and try hard not to screw them up.”

Wolfgang Puck

Food with soul can also be enhanced with the right dining room ambience, sincere and caring service, great storytelling through menu copy and server interaction with guests, and the periodic presence of the chef in the dining room. In the end, it is still all about the food and how it makes people feel.

In an era where the science of cooking is becoming more and more present in kitchens I wonder how this will impact on the soul of cooking. To me (and I know many will say I am too “old school”) there is something magical about the touch of a cast iron pan on sole Meuniere, something incredibly satisfying about a classically braised veal shank, and something truly heart warming about a perfectly prepared buttermilk fried chicken. As simple as these items might be, if prepared well, by a caring cook, they will create lasting memories.

The best food with soul may come from a Michelin starred restaurant in New York City, a third generation Italian restaurant in your own neighborhood, or even a food truck at 11 p.m. outside a local bar. When there is caring, understanding, tradition, and dedication involved – there is soul.

There are, according to the National Restaurant Association, more than 1 million free standing restaurants in the United States that employ almost 14 million workers. I implore restaurateurs and chefs to spend the time to teach, train, buy, taste, and validate that everything that leaves the kitchen in those restaurants come from the hands of a caring cook who is proud to put his or her signature on each dish and inject a heavy dose of soul.


Harvest America Ventures, LLC


Restaurant Consulting and Training