One of America’s Best Southern Restaurants Is on the North Side of Seattle

We have a conversation with Edouardo Jordan of JuneBaby and Salare about Southern food, prestige in the culinary world, and gentrification.

On a cold Friday night in Seattle, chef Edourado Jordan bundled up in a sweatshirt and briskly walked from the Southern restaurant JuneBaby to the French- and Italian-influenced New American restaurant Salare just a few blocks away. After tending to the kitchen, he headed back up the street to his Southern spot yet again, splitting his time and mind between two disparate cuisines.

It’s a juggling act he’s being pulling off since JuneBaby opened earlier this year, giving him a pair of restaurants that express his different approaches toward food. In one moment, he’s leading a brigade that’s focused on French and Italian cuisine at Salare—a restaurant reflecting his time working in Italy and then for Thomas Keller at the French Laundry and Per Se. When he runs back to JuneBaby, he’s cooking food that’s an homage to what he grew up eating as an African-American living in Florida with family from Georgia. The first allows him to flex his muscle as a professional chef, while the second celebrates the food that’s closest to his heart.

Though he’s not cooking in one of America’s culinary capitals, his experience of passing through some of the world’s best kitchens and building these restaurants has given him invaluable insight on the country’s culinary scene. So we sat down with him to discuss how prestige is doled out in the culinary world, the gentrification of Southern food, and why he felt the need to tell the story of Southern food with JuneBaby.

Why create Salare before JuneBaby?
I knew from being in New York that I wanted to open up a Salare type of restaurant as my first restaurant, just because it’s my culinary journey. It talks about the food I’ve learned as a culinarian.

What do you mean by a “Salare-type” restaurant?
I wanted a restaurant that was an interpretation of my culinary journey. I’m French-trained, and I love Italian cuisine. I’ve cooked in both French and Italian restaurants. I’m from the South. I have a big love for charcuterie. All that was like a part of my love for food, and I wanted to have a restaurant that spoke on all of those notes—or, in a sense, that represented me. Salare totally represents my professional journey. That’s what I wanted to present, and gain respect.

It’s kind of like any of the three-star restaurants. They open their three-star restaurant first, and then they open up a little less fancy restaurant, a little less headache. Typically, you don’t find people opening a lowbrow restaurant, a sandwich shop, and then go try to open up—quote unquote—a three-star restaurant, or even a one-star restaurant.

Let me think about what defines me as a culinarian, and then I’ll look at other aspects of how I can branch my brand off. This restaurant here, JuneBaby, speaks on who I am as an individual soul and as an African-American male from a food standpoint.

catfish grits

Fried catfish with Geechie Boy Grits, spinach, preserved corn, and red sauce  Photo: courtesy Shannon Renfroe

Was there a dish early on when you were building JuneBaby’s menu that felt like, “Yeah, I’ve got to make sure I have that on there.”
Totally. There are a bunch of dishes, and they make their way on the menu sporadically. Chitlins were the mainstay. That was going to be on my menu as a statement of who I am and where I’m from. I enjoyed chitlins [chitterlings] as a kid, and as I grew up, I stopped talking about it because I learned more what it was. I couldn’t tell my friends about, “Oh, I ate pig intestines as a kid.” They’re stinky as hell, but they’re tasty. It just became this long story of trying to explain to someone. Most of the time, they turned up their face and said, “Ew,” so I was like that’s not what I talked about anymore.

As I grew in the culinary world and I started finding my voice, I realized I need to start talking about the foods of my history, the foods of my foundation. Chitlins was one of the main ones. It’s on the menu every day. I’m not afraid to talk about it and sell it and introduce people to it.

On JuneBaby’s website, it says Southern food is a disrespected cuisine. How so?
Just because of the stereotypes of like, “Oh, that’s black-people food.” No, actually, it’s the food that fed America. That’s the reality. There were many hundreds and thousands of people that were not just slaves that ate that food and really enjoyed that food and took something away from that food. We’re talking about what’s American cuisine. Look at how many iconic American dishes are taken from Southern food. That’s a lot.

Barbecue, for one.
Yeah. If we start sitting down, penciling out the most iconic American foods, we’re going to be surprised that out of 20, probably 10 of them are based on Southern- or African-influenced food. It’s pretty darn amazing.

Southern food can get generalized as lacking nuance and sophistication. However, how much of that is bound up in racial and class stereotypes against the people who created the cuisine, making it hard to disentangle those biases from a real assessment of the food?
That’s a challenge. The cool kids way back in the day didn’t eat oxtails, or they didn’t technically want to eat oxtails. But look at the cool kids now. Everybody’s eating oxtail. I don’t think everybody’s going to eat chitlins, but we started talking about neck bones. “Oh, I will never eat neck bones.” But now, “Oh, look at this cool terrine that we made of neck bones and stuffed with foie.” Now it’s cool.

When I lived in New York after the Great Recession hit, the cool kids were opening Southern restaurants in the city.
Honestly, that was probably the defining moment for me to be like, “I need to really embrace my food and do it,” because I searched Google one time—it was like best Southern restaurant or best Southern chef. I was like, “Damn.” When I Googled best Southern chef, there was probably like 20 chefs up there, and none of them was of color. It was just shocking to me. It was like this slew of Southern restaurants that were coming up, this big trend of Southern food, and there was no one of color truly talking about the food from their perspective, in their eyes.

There’s a ton of mom-and-pops and beautiful restaurants out there that none of them made that list of best Southern restaurants. It was kind of scary. It was like, “Jesus, what about Bertha’s?” There are other little restaurants that I went to in my research that have been around forever. They’re tried and true. I imagine some of these chefs may have went to some of these restaurants and dabbled and tasted and got inspired. Maybe some of them don’t even know about them, but, wow, why aren’t they on the list? Who are they? Who are these people?

Did you feel Southern food was being gentrified?
100 percent it has been. That’s a reality. There’s some great chefs of non-color telling beautiful stories about Southern food, and that’s appreciated and needed. That helped put Southern food back on the map, but my issue was, well, what happened to all the African-American chefs that been grinding it all this time and may have had a small shop and never got recognized? How about this list of the most recognizable and possibly underrated Southern restaurants in the country? Why hasn’t that been talked about?

The reality is that these restaurants been around for years, but all of a sudden the cool kids decided to open up a Southern restaurant, and Southern food’s like the greatest thing in the world now. They’re the greatest chef in the country now. It was just like, are you kidding me? This is the food that I ate all the time. When I ate at a lot of the cool-kid restaurants, I wasn’t inspired in a sense, because I’m like, “Wow, this is not the Southern food that I know of.” It was the new, cool way to present Southern food.

Just got to chef it up.
Yeah. I didn’t want to do that here. It’s a tried-and-true, mom-and-pop feel, done from a chef. I have a couple of dishes that are a little more frou-frou, but for the most part it’s one-pot braised, beautiful dishes—like two-component dishes put together and done properly, recognizing ingredients, recognizing farmers, and still technique-driven without “Here’s a foam on top of my rice. Here’s my rice foam and blah, blah, blah. I’m using the greatest rice in the country, but I just blended it up and created this and this and this.” I’m like, no, here’s my bowl of rice and peas, and done right. That’s what I’m presenting here. That’s what a lot of these small mom-and-pop restaurants have been doing for years. I’m getting recognized for what they’ve been doing. Why haven’t they been recognized? That’s the question for me.

pimento cheese pickles

Pimento cheese with pickles and saltine crackers.  Photo: courtesy Shannon Renfroe

It’s something I’ve been reflecting on lately. How much of what I do as a person in the media feed a machine that determines prestige? And are the markers of determining prestige still valid?
I can easily be placed in a new-kid bubble, too. I am the new kid on the block. I’m not going to be like, “Oh, shame on you new kids.” Everyone plays a role in this dynamic of Southern food, if we’re just going to talk about Southern food. You got now the new kids, but if none of the new kids ever talks about the old folks and the traditional places that inspired them, that’s not good. I don’t know if they know of these places because they never talk about them. They had to get inspired from somewhere, right? Yeah, their mom and their pop could’ve cooked that way, but they also dine out. Are they not paying respect to some of those folks that created that food and showing love? How about going to that restaurant and taking a picture with that chef and putting it on Instagram? We can go down all the cool-kids’ Instagram to how many are able to stop off and show love to these folks that have been doing it for 40 years in a little place outside of Charleston or Memphis.

That touches me all the time. Then the media is like, “Alright, well if we’re only going to go highlight who won a James Beard Award, or who just won a Michelin Star Award, or who just opened the best new restaurant,” then we’re forgetting about those tried, true, classic places that are the true belt of the South, that holds the South together. When I want to go to the South, I’m going to go to these mom-and-pop restaurants, not the most expensive Southern restaurant in the country.

Many cuisines are starting to earn the respect they deserve, but so many times that respect comes because they’re being refracted through a French lens. A chef can get people respecting their food more quickly if they say something like, “We’ve merged Mexican flavors and French techniques, or Indian flavors with French techniques.” Do you think that’s a fair assessment?
It’s totally true to a certain degree. French is our foundation for most American cooks, as that’s what most of us been trained in unless you went through another system. [Like] that aspect of mirepoix—if I’m putting mirepoix in anything that I cook in a Southern restaurant, that’s a French aspect to cooking already. My grandmother didn’t know what the hell mirepoix is. She cut up onions and peppers. That’s not mirepoix. But if I decide to add mirepoix to my oxtail, yeah, it’s already been influenced—quote-unquote—by French cooking techniques or blends of ingredients. I think that’s always going to be, until culinary school goes away or the traditional way of learning, which is French, goes away. Then that’s always going to be a part of our cooking aspect.

I ran into that situation with Salare. It’s like, yeah, I didn’t want to become just the black Southern chef, and that’s why Salare came first. I didn’t want to open a Southern restaurant because it was so easy for me as a person of color to be pigeonholed and be like, “Oh, yeah, it’s the black chef with the black restaurant.” I can cook anything and everything, and I can stand up right next to any of the best and produce a really beautiful pasta. I can produce only the best French sauces that anyone desires. I can do all of that, but I just didn’t want to be, “Yep, that’s him. He barbecues. He knows how to cook collard greens. Yeah, chitlins, good.” I’m diverse enough in the kitchen that I desire to do Salare first for that reason.

coconut cream pie

Coconut cream pie.  Photo: courtesy Shannon Renfroe

Did anything surprise you in the public’s reception of JuneBaby?
Yeah. Initially, we had a little backlash—nothing horrible—but certain people came into the restaurant not knowing who I was and my pedigree and my desire for the restaurant. They came in thinking, “It’s Southern food. I’m going to get a big plate of food for $10.95 and be able to walk out with extra.” My food is ingredient-driven, so it costs me a lot more to produce some of the plates that I have. We live in Seattle, minimum wage is higher, the cost of running a kitchen is higher, and the rent. All that comes into play, so my dishes are, yeah, higher than what your typical Southern restaurant costs or a plate would be. Maybe that catfish dish in Louisiana will be $13.99. It can’t be here at that price. If not, I’m out of business. People didn’t recognize the quality of ingredients that I was bringing in. They quickly assumed, “Why would I pay $11 for peas and rice?” Well, this is heirloom rice, these are heirloom peas, I have to actually bring these in because they don’t grow here in Seattle. All of that is incorporated into the final cost. That was one issue.

I’ve heard the same from chefs opening Mexican or Korean restaurants in Southern California where there’s a greater downward price pressure on them than if they opened a French restaurant. The expectation is that the food should be cheap.
That’s a double-edged sword. Most of the people who are now going in that direction are white chefs for the most part. Yeah, you got some very talented Mexican chefs that are doing excellent things, and they probably get a little backlash, too. It’s even tougher or harder on that establishment if it’s a white chef opening up a Mexican restaurant bringing in heirloom ingredients, charging $13 for a taco. People are like, “Boy, I can go get a better taco down the street for $3.” That’s what people feel. That is a double-edged sword.

Like in Brooklyn, where they Brooklyn-ized a chopped-cheese sandwich, and people in Bronx are just like, “What are you doing with your $14 artisanal chopped cheese?”
“It doesn’t taste as good as what we do up here for $4.95 at the corner store!”—Yeah, you got to be very careful with that dynamic issue there. Luckily, I’m respected. People appreciate what I’m doing. I am an African-American chef producing African-American traditional food in a sense—Southern food, soul food, whatever way you want to put it. There’s a little more respect for what I’m trying to do. People appreciate that I’m one of the new faces of Southern food, especially way this far in Seattle, too.

Do you think the backlash subsided when people understood where you were coming from with your approach to Southern cuisine?
Someone jokingly said to me, “You weeded out the people that shouldn’t be eating that food.” It’s laughable. I want everyone to experience it and appreciate it. But, yeah, a lot of people, you got those—for lack of a better word—you got those hipsters that want to go to the first new restaurant that opens up so that they can say that they’ve been there, and they never really understood what was going on. “The new noodle joint is opening up. We going to go on Saturday because it just opened on Friday. We’re so excited we were the first ones.” They had no clue what was going on. A little of that was happening. People also were excited that it was a Southern restaurant, but they just didn’t know the history that was coming with this restaurant.

But are there times where you’re breaking with some tradition in how the food is prepared that diners may not see?
My grandmother’s pound cake—I got the recipe from her as a kid. It was made with sour cream. We make crème fraiche in-house, and we use that instead. Just a minor change, very similar product, but that’s how it’s made. We make a really good crème fraiche. That’s a simple change that is hopefully making a better product.

As much as I’m tried and true, yeah, I manipulate the internal workings of ingredients in dishes to definitely get a final product that I hope is better than what my grandmother produced or better than any other Southerner produced. At the end, I want someone to be like, “That is the best peas and rice I ever had. Those are the best collard greens I ever had. That’s the best fried chicken I ever had.” To get to that end product, yes, I had to probably use my brain more than my tongue. Then there’s times where I’m using my tongue more than I’m using my brain. I want it to be natural; I want it to flow.

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