Southern food inching its way north of the Mason-Dixon line isn’t really anything new. After all, international chain restaurant KFC has been around forever with that gateway drug to all things Southern: fried chicken. Lately, however, there seems to be a whole new infiltration of Southern restaurants and barbecue joints into the Queen City, but somehow it feels different — fresher and lighter, with a lot less attention paid to the deep fat fryer and a whole lot more paid to the kinds of food people in the South actually eat.
Attempting to get to the bottom of this recent phenomenon, we headed straight to the experts: two gentlemen who own and run two of the most successful (and Southern-inspired) eateries in town, Joe Lanni of The Eagle OTR and Elias Leisring of Eli’s BBQ; along with executive chef Adam Cobb of Enoteca Emilia, which is slated to open Southern restaurant Son of a Preacher Man in O’Bryonville this month.
Give us a little background about each of your places and why it’s different than what’s already out there?
The Eagle features Southern food with a focus on fried chicken. When creating the concept, we decided that we wanted to focus on something distinctly American and also pick a focus that we felt we could be the best in town at. Fried chicken was an item that fit the bill. Most places in Cincinnati, which specialize in fried chicken, are old established neighborhood places; we saw this as an opportunity to build something new, fun and modern while presenting the downtown crowd with our take on an American classic.
There is surprisingly good barbecue in Cincinnati — we all know where to find it. Son of a Preacher Man is more than smoking; it’s a complete Southern dining experience. We are no doubt going to serve some delicious pork, but we’re doing it differently. We’re braising in Southern sodas and chipotle peppers for a sandwich; we’re bringing in Benton’s country hams and serving them sliced thinly with beer honey, mustard, pickles and a biscuit; we’re brining and cast iron-searing pork chops and serving them with Weisenberger grits and poached apples; and we’re cooking exclusively in pure pork lard, which was a lot harder to find than you might imagine.
This restaurant is a tribute to really honest, soulful Southern cooking, very much in line with the flavor profiles loved by my grandmother and those of her generation. It’s simple food done really well, with a lot of attention to the products and the process.
Our bar program will feature some great bourbon, of course, but we will also showcase great beers and handcrafted cocktails playing homage to Southern tradition.
Eli’s BBQ did not really start with a particular style in mind. I had a flavor in mind that I wanted our barbecue to taste like. It didn’t matter to me what style or region that may favor. We shy away from haute barbecue. It doesn’t seem to fit. In our opinion, we relish the simplicity, patience and alchemy that barbecue cooking requires — there isn’t much more needed than salt, sugar, spice and wood fire.
Southern-style food seems to be having a renewed moment of glory throughout the country. Why do you think this is happening and do you think it’s a trend?
The expanding American palate has created an interest in all types of food. Southern food is a great example of a cuisine that many people probably came to take for granted, but this is food that is rooted in tradition just like any of the great cuisines throughout time. I also think that in the food world in general there has been a trend toward authentic food that has a humble history. Whether this is Italian peasant food, Indian from a specific region of India or Mexican street food, it is all part of the same phenomenon. Southern food fits this regional trend perfectly; it is authentic in every way and was born of humble beginnings in a specific place.
It’s no doubt an exciting time for Southern cooking. Many young, ambitious chefs are reinterpreting the idea of Southern food, and Southern cuisine is becoming increasingly more popular. Cincinnati seems to be a prime market for Son of a Preacher Man, and the historical significance is certainly helping to solidify the concept. Great food most often comes from times of necessity, and the restaurant will keep that philosophy alive with canning, preserving, smoking and utilizing off-cuts.
People are yearning for things traditional and genuine. Southern-style food and tastes are one of the truly American cuisines. Of course, it is a melting pot of several international cuisines. However, the flare of the South is evident throughout the style.
Southern food of the past was typically seen as deep-fried, fat-laden, overcooked and oftentimes flavorless. What, if anything, are you doing to change old stereotypes?
Some of the traditional deep fat frying of Southern food is probably more just stereotype than anything. Certainly they favor deep fat frying as they had a ready supply of the fat to fry.
JL:We are cooking with flavor, technique and love. This isn’t always the healthiest meal available, but it’s made with the same care your grandmother would have taken — just with better ingredients. ©