French with a Southern Accent

Georgia Trend Magazine. January 2022 print edition.

Located in one of Savannah’s oldest buildings that dates back to the 1890s, St. Neo’s Brasserie is not your typical hotel restaurant. For starters, the interior is a dream come true for decorators and makeover enthusiasts. What was an eyesore of an abandoned building that once housed American Trust and Bank in Savannah’s Historic District is now the ultra-chic Drayton Hotel featuring St. Neo’s, a Southern-inspired seafood restaurant and raw bar.

The restaurant’s backdrop of distressed glass bar and blue velvet walls invites guests to experience nostalgia with a twist of modernity. The décor combines elements of classy French brassieres with fun retro American diners: There are wicker backed chairs, warm globe lights, cozy wood floors and colorful tiles. Inside the dining room, a large mural painted by artist Bob Christian depicts Spanish moss, oak trees and dreamy clouds to remind you of your current surroundings – the Lowcountry.

In summer, the seasonally inspired cocktail menu reimagines agreeable classics with gentler spins. The Tuscan Gaze is a sweeter version of an Old Fashioned, with a hint of grapefruit and Italian amaro. The pucker of kiwi contrasts with coconut liquor and pisco in a drink named Most Beautiful Girl in the Room – a beauty that hits your tastebuds at the right spots. Pear cordial, lemongrass vermouth and a splash of salt bring out a sweet and sour exchange in the John Dorian cocktail, a take on the Appletini. There’s also a full bar and an innovative wine list featuring handpicked biodynamic wine selections – produced without chemicals and using natural materials – from Spain, Italy, France, Austria and the U.S.

The dinner menu is curated daily using sustainably sourced seafood and local ingredients. (St. Neo’s is named after the patron saint of fish, Saint Neot.) It offers a fine selection of sharable seafood tapas and several wholesome entrees. Only the freshest oysters are flown in (today’s came from Massachusetts, the server informs us) and land on a generously portioned raw-bar tower. You can add lobster, shrimp, crudo (raw fish) and crab.

If you bring a group, share a grazing platter of charred rustic homemade sourdough bread with smoked trout and celery salad, salmon mousse, deviled eggs and pickled okra. A side of crisp, beer-battered fried seasonal vegetables with lemon tahini dipping sauce is also good for nibbling.

St. Neo’s version of a jumbo lump crab cake uses spiced lemon chips instead of the usual breading. The fresh and light meat is served inside a beautiful blue crab shell sitting on top of a grilled lemon made to look like a rock.

Crispy thin prosciutto chips reveal two perfectly seared diver scallops, with a sweet apple butter sauce. A light and pleasing dish for all the senses.

The main attraction is a blackened shrimp entrée that hones in on Southern cooking influences. The acidity of heirloom tomatoes contrasts against the sweetness of a moist corn spoonbread with a peppery kick from blackened and grilled South Carolina shrimp.

While the patron saint blessed this kitchen with an abundance of sea creatures, there are locally sourced meat and poultry, too. Filet mignon carpaccio is served with a crispy poached egg, and the ribeye with potatoes, Brussels sprouts and mushrooms is a crowd pleaser. Seasonally inspired desserts change daily. In the fall, an interplay of graham cracker-crusted pumpkin tart with fresh figs and candied pistachios with chili will remind you of the changing weather of the South. There’s also the chef’s selection of petit fours for indecisive diners.

After a flavorful, unpretentious dinner, head down to the speakeasy lounge in the basement of the hotel or upstairs to the rooftop bar for a view of the Savannah River.

This article appears in the January 2022 issue of Georgia Trend.

Kwame Onwuachi On Fighting Food Insecurity In The Bronx

Zagat. December 2021.

Kwame Onwuachi is a chef, author, and TV personality. After closing his last restaurant, Kith/Kin in Washington DC, the James Beard Award-winning chef is judging Food Network’s Top Chefand Chopped, producing Food & Wine magazine and a film based on his memoir, and releasing his third book. Onwuachi co-chairs a National Advisory Committee on Food Insecurity and is on a mission to end food insecurity in the Bronx.

Growing up in the Bronx, I experienced food insecurity firsthand. Often, my only meal of the day was the free lunch provided at school. As a child, I worried about where I would eat when I was not at school. In the summer, we, as a family, were able to eat at a free lunch program offered by a public school that helped feed individuals like us. People don’t understand … a lot of kids eat only at the school, and I was one of those kids.

I am tired of people thinking of food as a luxury. It is a basic right for everyone. While growing up, my mother made just enough money to be ineligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), while she struggled to put food on the table. We utilized the free meal program in the Bronx, but we still need more programs like that.

Continue reading on Zagat

Go Nuts for Thanksgiving

Georgia Trend. November 2021.

Pecans, peanuts, pistachios, walnuts, macadamia – oh my! Georgia produces a wide variety of nuts. In fact, Georgia leads the way as the nation’s top pecan producer, growing 142 million pounds last year.

Nuts are a good source of protein, omega-3 fatty acids, have very low sodium (if unsalted) and are cholesterol free. They are versatile and can be used in a variety of recipes. In a nutshell, you don’t have to thrive on chocolate covered nuts, praline pecans and baked goodies. This Thanksgiving, incorporate healthy and delicious nuts into your holiday recipes.

As you think of dishes to serve for Thanksgiving dinner, consider make-in-advance or ready-made walnut pesto on a crostini with feta cheese.

Larry and Beverly Willson, at one of Georgia’s longest-running nut farms, Sunnyland Farms in Albany, recommend cutting dried Medjool dates or figs in half, stuffing

them with a whole almond and topping with crumbled blue cheese, for a sweet and salty snack. You can also sprinkle on bacon bites and cayenne for an extra kick.

The Spicy-peanut party hummus recipe by Gloria Piantek was the winner of the 2021 National Peanut Month Recipe Contest. And it’s no surprise. The combination of sweet and spicy pepper relish, chipotle peppers, creamy peanut butter and mashed chickpeas, tells your tastebuds that its festive season. You can find more such recipes at the Tifton-based Georgia Peanut Commission’s website.

Instead of traditional olive oil and vinegar salad dressing, toss in pecan oil or peanut dressing. The nutty flavor gives more personality to the greens and your guests will keep guessing your “secret recipe.”

For a twist on traditional sweet potato casserole, bake a side of easy-to-grab sweet potato muffins featuring small pecan pieces. The recipe calls for the exact same ingredients – canned sweet potatoes, butter, cinnamon, milk, eggs, sugar – and some flour.

This holiday season, branch out from the traditional turkey with chef Virginia Wills’s almond crusted trout with pecan brown butter. Dress the fish with roasted almond rice pilaf or Asian cashew slaw. The recipe can be found on the Georgia Pecan Commission website.

Georgia Grown peach pecan cranberry sauce is easy to make and adds color to the thanksgiving table. It is boozy with pecan liquor, festive with cranberries and can be made in the microwave in just a few minutes. Use the leftover sauce to make hand pies for breakfast the next day. Georgia Grown partners with chefs around the state to share creative recipes like this, using the freshest homegrown ingredients.

For dessert, try a peanut ribbon cake recipe dating back to the 1970s. The already-frozen pound cake, layered with sweet, grated chocolate and chopped peanuts, can be assembled and frozen until ready to serve with whipped cream and liqueur. Take a look at the Georgia Peanut Commission’s retro recipe collection and you may discover one of your childhood favorites.

For an after-Thanksgiving treat while you trim the Christmas tree, have the kids help arrange a charcuterie plate with crackers, hard and soft cheeses, sliced salami, roasted mixed nuts and fruit jams. The plate is easy to graze on and takes further advantage of the nutty flavors of the season.

However you decide to go nuts this year, roast them first to release the oils and add more crunch. Store nuts in a zip-lock bag or airtight container in the refrigerator or freezer. The lower the temperature you store the nuts, the longer they will keep.

Happy Holidays!

~ Written for and published by Georgia Trend Magazine. All rights reserved.

A Pumpkin Halwa That Will Change how You Feel About Squash

Fifth Season Blog. November 2021.

When I entered my suburban apartment kitchen, the once bare white walls were covered with stringy orange slime. It looked like a chaotic scene from Ghostbusters. But these were pumpkin fibers, not viscous green psycho-reactive slime. And there were no ghosts. Just my own mom and grandma attempting to make pumpkin halwa for Thanksgiving. 

Perhaps my imagination was stretched by my newly found love for scary Hollywood films. At 17 years of age, I had moved from India to the United States and now had access to 24 hours of cable television. 

t was October in Atlanta. There were pumpkins all over the grocery stores, pumpkin lattes at coffee shops, and pumpkin cheesecakes at restaurants. I never even knew there were so many ways to eat pumpkin.

Continue reading on Fifth Season’s blog – The Green Room

Charm Meets Grandeur

Georgia Trend Magazine. November 2021.

Overlooking the colorful downtown, swaying in my rocking chair, sipping a blueberry sour cocktail, I feel I could be in any Southern small town. But this is no ordinary place, building or porch. It is the same spot where global heads of state and accomplished billionaires have wined and dined. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was recently spotted having dinner during her stay, and former President Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn are regulars.

The historic Best Western Plus Windsor Hotel is an iconic structure dominating an entire block in Americus. The 130-year-old hotel (opened in 1892) has changed hands many times and undergone millions of dollars in renovations to be restored to its original grandeur that guests can enjoy today.

On the second floor is the hotel’s main dining room, Rosemary & Thyme. What used to be a ballroom (older patrons recall spending fun afternoons here) is an affordable fine dining restaurant that opened in 2012. It is a must-stop for visitors and where locals make reservations for special occasions.

With the original tile floors, Victorian period furnishings, large windows and white tablecloths, Rosemary & Thyme recalls the bygone era of old dining rooms. You may feel a bit underdressed walking into this opulent hall, but there’s really no dress code (truly).

The menu is inspired by its Southern roots, favoring classics such as meat and sides. Due to labor shortages and reduced demand because of the pandemic, the menu was revised to include fewer specials that are offered at both the restaurant and Floyd’s Pub next door.

Pick up a copy of the November 2021 print issue or read it online.

Spooky sips and bites

Georgia Trend. October 2021.

Tis’ the season! With pumpkins, turkeys and candy on our minds, the last quarter of the year is all about celebrations over food. Restaurants and bars across the state are getting creative with food and drink items to get customers into the celebratory spirit. Whether you’re tickled by edible ghost candies, mummified meatballs or eyeballs in your drinks (don’t worry, these are made with green olives), trick or treat yourself with these Halloween-themed specials.

Continue reading on Georgia Trend Magazine’s website…

Preserving Gullah Geechee Cuisine Through Cookbooks

Cuisine Noir. September 2021.

Many African American decedents of enslaved people lived along the barrier islands and along the coast of Georgia, Florida and both Carolinas. “Instead of dying after their landowners abandoned their cotton, indigo and rice plantation, the Geechee thrived in collectives that shared their bountiful resources as well as their own language, music, art and spiritual traditions,” writes Matthew Raiford in his new book, “Bress ‘n’ Nyam: Gullah Geechee Recipes from a Sixth-Generation Farmer.”

Over the years, chefs, historians and authors around the country have made it their mission to preserve Gullah Geechee culinary traditions for today’s generation and those to come. In the 1970s, Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor put Gullah-Geechee cultural identity in front of Americans for the first time. Her seminal cookbook, “Vibration Cooking: Or, The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl,” documented recipes from her South Carolina Lowcountry home and gave a glimpse into the lives of Black migrants.

Today, Raiford and his wife, Tia, work tirelessly at their sixth-generation family-run Gillard Farm in Brunswick, Georgia. They encourage their young sons to learn the sustainable farming techniques and cooking traditions passed down from their West African ancestors over 300 years ago. “Good food and good community go hand in hand. Maybe it’s the key to resilience. And maybe now, we know our worth,” says Raiford.

Gullah Geechee cuisine is often called the “birth of soul food” and includes cooking with seasonal vegetables such as okra, collards, corn and cabbage, as well as freshly caught Lowcountry seafood, such as conch, shark, oyster, blue crab and locally grown rice.

To learn more about Gullah Geechee food and culture, check out these recent cookbooks.

Bress ‘n’ Nyam: Gullah Geechee Recipes from a Sixth-Generation Farmer” by Matthew Raiford and Amy Paige Condon  

Raiford’s new book pays homage to his forefather Jupiter Gillard, who purchased the land he currently tills back in 1912 as a free person. The title Bress ‘n’ Nyam means to bless and eat in Gullah Geechee dialect. “It is what we said for grace before we ate,” says Raiford. The recipes organized by the universal elements – earth, water, fire, wind, nectar and spirits, are based on his own heritage and inspired by his global travels. Highlights include sweet potato pone, smoked Ossabaw Island hog, and molasses stone fruit gelato with apple-lavender compote.

Sallie Ann Robinson’s Kitchen: Food and Family Lore from the Lowcountry” by Sallie Ann Robinson

Daufuskie Island, South Carolina, native, cookbook author and celebrity chef Sallie Ann Robinson is also a sixth-generation Gullah. Robinson, who is nicknamed “Gullah Diva,” has written three cookbooks and a photography book about the island. In her most recent hardcover, find passed down recipes for Carolina country broils, island pineapple and coconut chicken and Gullah chicken gumbo.

Also, check out her legendry books, “Gullah Home Cooking the Daufuskie Way: Smokin’ Joe Butter Beans, Ol’ ‘Fuskie Fried Crab Rice, Sticky-Bush Blackberry Dumpling, and Other Sea Island Favorites” and “Cooking the Gullah Way, Morning, Noon, and Night.”

“Mama Doonk’s Gullah Recipes 2nd edition” by Theresa Jenkins Hilliard

Hilliard grew up in a Gullah Geechee household in Charleston, South Carolina, and likes to take readers on a cultural and culinary journey through her books. Named after her grandmother, Mama Doonk, the book’s 2ndedition was released in summer 2021. In it, you’ll find recipes that Hilliard learned by watching the three women in her house (aunt, mother and grandmother), using proteins such as rabbit, raccoon and possum. For more traditional flavors, there are also instructions for pound cake, biscuits and corn muffins.

“Jubilee (Recipes from Two Centuries of African American Cooking)” by Toni Tipton-Martin

James-Beard award winner, Tipton-Martin, is one of the most celebrated culinary historians who takes a kaleidoscope view on African American cuisine. In her cookbooks, she identifies chefs, entrepreneurs, recipes and techniques beyond southern and soul food. In “Jubilee,” named “one of the best cookbooks of the year” by The New York Times, you can find recipes for classic dishes such as sweet potato biscuits, seafood gumbo, buttermilk fried chicken and pecan pie with bourbon, among many others.

~ Written for and published by Cuisine Noir. All rights reserved.

Georgia’s In My Fillings Serves Made-to-Order Gourmet Cupcakes to Please

Cuisine Noir. September 2021.

Charlise Johnson is the chef and owner of In My Fillings cupcake shop in Suwanee, Georgia. Her unique business model offers customers an opportunity to make their own cupcakes by combining different base cakes, icings and toppings. She opened her first, what she calls the “Chipotle for cupcakes,” style location during the pandemic in November 2020 and aspires to open locations across the country. A competitive baker, Johnson has been featured on the Food Network, Bravo and VH1.

Johnson’s earliest memory of baking cakes was as a child in her Easy-Bake Oven. Her mother, Joyce Jenkins, has a catering and event venue in Pine Level, North Carolina, and she taught Johnson how to bake, serve and run a business.

Charlise Johnson decorating cupcakes
Pictured: Charlise Johnson decorating cupcakes | Photo credit: Elle Kay Photography

After graduating with a degree in computer science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Johnson worked full-time in Atlanta as a database developer. But her true passion was baking. She opened a home-based cottage bakery called Intimate Eats, through which she made custom cakes during nights and weekends. She worked seven days a week for about six years. “It was a lot of work and I never had any time off,” she says. Meanwhile, Johnson won second place on Food Network’s “Cake Wars” in 2016 and competed on “Holiday Wars” in 2020.

Flavors to Please

Last year, Johnson turned 40 years old and wanted to ensure that she had taken the time to pursue her ideas and dreams. She still liked to bake, but cake decorating involved laboring over fondant and piping for countless hours. She quit her corporate job and opened a brick-and-mortar cupcake shop in the suburbs of Atlanta. “I got the idea when my clients came for cake tastings and were looking to mix and match the flavors,” Johnson says about her new concept. At In My Fillings, customers can walk into the store and design their own cupcake combinations on the spot.

Assortment of In My Fillings cupcakes
Pictured: Assortment of In My Fillings cupcakes | Photo credit: In My Fillings

Choices include made-from-scratch five base cake flavors offered every day (including sweet potato and red velvet), five fillings (like crushed pineapple and chocolate ganache), seven icings (such as salted caramel, buttercream and peanut butter), and eight toppings (for instance pretzels, pecans and coconut). Seasonal flavors may include summer lemon, carrots, or Georgia peaches, and Johnson happily accommodates off-menu requests as well. She recently made vanilla cupcakes with guava filing for a pickup.

The custom-created cupcakes are especially popular with kids celebrating birthday parties and bar mitzvahs. “Thankfully, I have a lot of repeat customers. I get calls for cakes every day, but I tell them to buy a cupcake instead,” humors Johnson.

No Regrets

When asked about what it was like to open a new business during the pandemic, Johnson responds, “Just like any other time. I never had a storefront before, so I don’t know what it should have been like. It’s not any different than opening a business at another time, except there’s more uncertainty.”

Johnson took a leap of faith leaving her comfortable paycheck to start her own business during uncertain times, but she feels it was worth it. “There’s a lot more to business than baking cupcakes. I have to deal with administrative paperwork, manage employees, and serve customers. It takes different skillsets, but I am learning them over time. The idea of running your own business may seem scary, but if you take small steps, you can do it,”

Assortment of In My Fillings cupcakes
Pictured: Assortment of In My Fillings cupcakes | Photo credit: In My Fillings

Johnson motivates others just as her mom and mentors encouraged her. She advises entrepreneurs to reach out to the city about business licensing requirements and to speak to other small business owners about their learnings.

Though In My Fillings has been open for only a few months, Johnson is already dreaming of hiring a business manager and expanding to locations all over the country so that she can focus exclusively on baking cupcakes. “Regardless of what happens, I feel great knowing that I did it.”

To learn more about Charlise Johnson or her cupcakes, visit In My Fillings. The storefront in Suwanee is located at 2855 Lawrenceville Suwanee Road Suite 780.  You can also follow along on Facebook and Instagram.

~ Written for and published by Cuisine Noir. All rights reserved.

Chef Veronica Wandui: How I Found My Voice In A Man’s World

HuffPost. September 2021.

Veronica Wandui is the executive banquet chef at The St. Regis Atlanta, where she orchestrates weddings and conferences for up to 600 guests at a time. After graduating from culinary school in Nairobi, Wandui was demotivated, harassed and told to stay “in her place.” She migrated to the United States and restarted her career, earning business management and culinary degrees and making her way from an intern to executive banquet chef at one of the most opulent kitchens in Atlanta. In this Voices in Food story, Wandui talks about what it took for her to get ahead as a Black female chef in a male-dominated workplace.

Continue reading on HuffPost…

4 Food Combinations to Boost Nutrient Absorption

Oxygen. July 2021.

You’re eating right, taking all the right supplements and exercising regularly, but you’re not seeing the results you want. Maybe you’ve nailed down exactly what you have to eat to live your healthiest lifestyle, but have you thought about the combinations of foods you eat? How about the ingredients you’re combining, beyond your basic macronutrients? 

Well, you should because consuming certain food combinations can help increase nutrient bioavailability and pave metabolic pathways to better overall health. Bioavailability, in simple terms, refers to the body’s ability to absorb nutrients from food. 

It may sound complicated, but that doesn’t mean the ingredients themselves have to be. In fact, you’re better off sticking with minimally processed ingredients.

~ Continue reading on Oxygen.