James Oseland

James Oseland explains the hidden challenges of making a simple plate of soul food.

on Apr 14, 2010


There’s nothing I love more than homemade macaroni and cheese, beautifully seasoned collards, and red beans served with a huge hunk of honey-slathered corn bread. I could eat soul food every day of the year. So when I learned that the elimination challenge on Episode 2 called for some of the best chefs in America to create a “gourmet soul food” plate, I was both thrilled and, to tell you the truth, a bit worried.

Why worried? Well, soul food is deceptive. People think it’s fried chicken and ribs—which it is, but it’s also salmon croquettes, iced layer cakes, impossibly airy cornmeal dumplings, and all kinds of other classic dishes that home cooks codified into the Southern canon back in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s glorious food, and like rustic French food or great Slavic home-style dishes, it’s grounded in a tradition of serious cooking and solid technique. In other words, you can’t fake it.

Because soul food is comfort food, people think it’s easy, too easy. I could taste that notion in the dish that David Burke made. I mean, here’s a chef who could cook circles around most people. He must have thought to himself: Where’s the challenge in making a simple plate of soul food? So what did he do? He used Southern ingredients as a springboard for reinvention, turning sweet potatoes into a fancy custard served in precious hollowed-out egg cups, along with a diminutive sliver of watermelon pickle (which I would have liked a larger serving of). Sure, all the dishes were delicious on their own, but the act of eating them felt cerebral and cold. Where was the soul?

Rather than reinterpreting or intellectualizing the idea of soul food, he would have had better luck had he just respected it. If he’d nodded to the great culinary tradition behind, say, a sweet potato casserole with a crackly pecan crust, he would have delivered a dish far more glorious and elegant—and soulful.