Southern Revival cuisine is as much about familiar Southern comfort foods as it is about innovative flavors and ethnic recipes. And who better to give us industry insights than an award-winning executive chef? We sat down with Chef Alex Harrell to look at Southern food trends.
The Shifting Face of Southern Cuisine
Chef Harrell, who spent his formative years in southeastern Alabama along the Gold Coast, has held onto his love of Southern cuisine. So much so that he only moved as far as New Orleans, keeping his regional style and simple approach at the forefront of his culinary aspirations.
His devotion to Southern foods gave him keen insight into micro-regional dishes and influences throughout the South. Chef Harrell explained that, over time, different ethnic groups brought their traditional recipes and techniques into the area. These people often carried ingredients from their homeland, introducing new tastes and possibilities.
Thanks to the diversity of styles and preferences, Southern dishes tend to have numerous variations — some that take the food down to basics before adding fresh, flavorful international flair.
Defining Southern Foods
As an agricultural area, the South became the natural place for a bounty of vegetables and grains. Chef Harrell listed tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers, corn, zucchini, and peppers as summer staples. In winter, potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, carrots, beets, and greens were common.
Today, these foods have diverged in their seasoning, with places like Birmingham, Alabama, seeing a rise in Mediterranean herbs like fennel and dill. In contrast, Mobile sees more Gulf Coast influence with chili powder, cayenne pepper, paprika, lemon, and hot sauce smothering seafood like crab and shrimp.
In New Orleans, the flavors of France, Spain, and the Caribbean are influential, as are West African Creole flavors.
Chef Harrell explained how one classic dish — jambalaya — fits this Southern Revival narrative well. As a beloved Louisiana dish, jambalaya melds different regional specialties. This includes paella, the rice and seafood dish from Valencia, Spain. A similar classic dish with different regional elements is gumbo, which arises from West African and Creole influences.
Southern Comfort Foods: Barbecue and Beyond
Next up is barbecue. The South and barbecue go hand in hand. However, according to Chef Harrell, there’s a world of difference between regional barbecue styles, in every element including the seasonings, meats, sauces, and woods.
Beef is the meat of choice in Texas, with the protein commonly smoked over mesquite and post oak wood. Northern Alabama has a stronger chicken presence, with the protein used with hickory and pecan wood, while southern Alabama prefers pork shoulder smoked over pecan wood.
The regions vary in their seasonings, and their sauce palate as well. Some sauces have more mustard, while others foreground tomatoes or spicy peppers. Japanese ingredients, especially teriyaki, are gaining popularity as well. Southern Revival cuisine also incorporates Korean and Vietnamese dishes and elements into Southern recipes.
When chefs draw on their origins or those of their colleagues, they create new Southern flavors with rich roots. Some cuisine influences come from Italian and Sicilian dishes, resulting in menus that might feature gnocchi with collard greens and smoked ham hocks smothered in ragu sauce. Other influences might come from Latin America, with tamales simmered in bold Delta-style seasonings.
Today’s Southern Revival cuisine feeds the excitement and pride of those creating the food and those sampling it. How would Chef Harrell sum it up? He said it comes down to authenticity and passion for good food.
Reach out to the Symrise team to learn more about Southern Revival trends and other exciting industry insights.