It’s a small culinary world and if you ask anyone about Chef Todd Richards, the first thing they’ll say is “I love Chef Todd.” Known for his expansive career in upscale hotels, Richards made a name for himself bringing Southern food to the most elegant of tables. In the kitchen he combines his interest in science with his love of food and family by way of his famous fried chicken. Currently the Executive Chef at White Oak Kitchen & Cocktails, Richards is expanding his empire to include the company Southern Food Traditions and a new restaurant, Richard’s Southern Fried, at Krog Street Market. The Chicago native sits down with P.Worthy to discuss how Freaknik lured him to the dirty South where he’s now a culinary legend.
PW: Tell me about your new restaurant Southern Fried opening at Krog Street Market?
TR: We wanted to do a project together, a group called Southern Food Traditions, that really expressed our love of community dining. What I mean is that fried chicken brings people together. It’s very difficult to be mad at somebody with a plate of fried chicken in front of you. It’s very difficult to not have conversations with people with that going on. White Oak has always been celebrated for fried chicken and throughout my career I’ve always been celebrated for fried chicken and we really want to do something that brought our synergies together. So when the opportunity to open at Krog Street Market came it was a no brainer. It’s probably one of the few fried chicken deserts in Atlanta. The closest is Popeyes and Busy Bee Cafe, but they’re up near Ponce. It’s just a great a opportunity to celebrate what we consider the most American of foods, which is fried chicken.
PW: What is the appeal of Krog Street market and why more chicken?
In Krog Street Market what we have is a stall, so it’s walk up and it’s all community seating. You can be sitting next to 50 people from different walks of life and someone can have fried chicken with creamed corn and you standing there looking like what is that and you start having this conversation. We make this fried cornbread muffin and it’s like where did you get those muffins from. It’s that type of community where you just start talking to people. I mean you really just start talking to people when you have delicious food in front of you and that’s what we’re really trying to accomplish, and not for anything more than just to get people to talk.
PW: Do you feel like there is a void in Atlanta as far as community engagement and dining?
TR: Atlanta is the greatest melting pot in this country right now. It’s always stood for Civil Rights and delicious food ways and when you have those two things coming together cities prosper and area prosper. When areas prosper there is more economic impact on communities and things become better. You can’t be a chef or a restaurateur without the thought in the back of your mind that you want someone or something to become better because of what you do. If you’re going into this type of business because of the money it’s really a fleeting things because there’s ebbs and flows in business all the time. When the economy was at the height fine dining was at the height. When the economy was down fine dining went down and fast casual came up. And now with the economy is leveling off and we’re seeing this mix of fine dining and fast casual coming together. And that’s why you see a lot of chefs opening these type of concepts. For myself, this is something I’ve always wanted to do. My career is fining dining. I’ve been at three Ritz Carltons, The Four Seasons Hotel and The Oak Room in Louisville, Kentucky. I know fine dining pretty well, but this speaks about how consumers eat now. I can relate to that because that’s the way I eat. I love getting dressed up to go eat at a fine dining restaurant. I also like walking down my driveway and going five or six blocks and having all this delicious food in front of me and I can sit there and talk to anybody I want to talk to.
This year Richards is hosting the Lexus Dinner, a private invite only event, at the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival June 2-5, 2016, where he will have the opportunity to interact and engage food lovers. He looks forward to the event because it allows him to let loose and work closely with other chefs. Richards is teaching two masterclasses at AF&WF, The Rise of the Poor Mans’ Food: Southern Sandwiches and Vegetable Versatility. The experience keeps him in the loop on the latest food trends hitting The South.
PW: Is that why you have been part of Atlanta Food and Wine Festival for so many years, because it brings people together?
TR: I’m hosting the Lexus Dinner on Saturday and I’m excited about that because I think it’s an interesting way to intimate with the chef. You can go out there and to people one. I am also doing a class on vegetables with with chef Digby Stridiron from the Virgin Islands. It’s about unusual ways to cook vegetables. Digby is doing something with plantains and he’s one of the most interesting chefs I know. I am using Endive for dessert. So it should be cool to see people react to the lettuce as a dessert.
PW: What do you like most about Atlanta Food & Wine festival?
TR: Every year I get to see everyone. I never get to see chefs in Atlanta because we’re so busy doing our own thing and working. I always see other chefs from different cities. My biggest joy is to see the new dishes they’re doing and talk shop. It’s great to see new chefs and what they’re doing.
White Oak Kitchen & Cocktails is the perfect blend of different levels of dining. There is the barrel bar with it’s own menu featuring Richards’ fried chicken, the dining room has a separate menu and there are private rooms with a select menu. The restaurant draws people from all walks of life who may crave comfort food with five star service or want something more upscale. The option of walking to the bar and mingling with the crowd is a reflection of Richards’ career and the trajectory of the culinary industry.
PW: Has food always been a part of your family and life?
TR: Mom is biologists and my dad was a computer programmer. I was fascinated by physics. I got accepted to go to Georgia Tech and I wanted to work on nuclear submarines and then I came to Freaknik in Atlanta. I figured there was a better way because there was no artistic value in what I was learning. I had the analytical side, but I also had a nice balance. My family was very family oriented. We celebrated every birthday and occasion, but I had to get fried chicken from next door. Then I stumbled on something I could be good at it if I applied myself.
PW: How did you get started as a chef without attending culinary school?
TR: I started wrapping meat at Kroger and then became a butcher. I got a job across the street the Blue Ribbon Grill as a line cook. I got a $20 tip one night and the guy told me it was the best steak he ever had. That was a sign for me to continue to cook. I read a lot. I’m a self proclaimed nerd. It was fascinating how you can cook food with feeling and integrity and have a science behind it.
PW: Your career has been in fine dining with an exception of a few places. Was White Oak an adjustment?
TR: I think my career has always been a fusion of those two having a background in hotels. Hotels are generally that way, especially if you run the three mill operation breakfast, lunch, dinner and in-room dining, your career is always in the parallel where you have to match your self at a certain price point. However, people expect delicious food and they expect you to use exceptional ingredients and they expect it to be worthy of them to come into your dining room. So I think that’s always been there. I think the Southern vernacular we use to present food has always used all the parts of the animal or the parts of the vegetables.
PW: So how does White Oak fit into that picture of offering the high, comfort food and in between?
TR: I think White Oak is very interesting because it’s such a vast restaurant space we have that kind of dynamic in here. I always kid and say White Oak is a hotel without the rooms. We have the barrel bar which has an interesting dynamic, we have lunch that has a different dynamic the business people come from downtown, and dinner where the locals come after work, we have business travelers where people come to have dinner and banquets where people host grand events.
PW: So basically what you do at White Oak is create comfort food using sophisticated techniques?
TR: We take a chicken and use six sophisticated techniques to make the chicken what it is, but it’s just a chicken. I think that we use different ideas throughout the time of the year. One thing southern food doesn’t get credit for is it is more sophisticated than what people think. The techniques to cook Southern food properly don’t not get enough credit. It’s not an esoteric way you come out of the womb and know how to cook. These are tried and true methods of cooking. I tell people French is food nothing but Southern food just $15.00 more. If you look at the way French food is prepared. Like pâté, roux and Coq au Vin and the dish I described is the same way I would do Coq au Vin. It’s not just a pinch of this and a pinch of that.
PW: You’re from Chicago, but what made you want to be an expert in Southern food?
TR: It was a rebellion of the stereotypes, especially in culinary. During the time I was there, there were stereotypes that would push you away from the things you liked the most. I was trying to find my roots in culinary and wanted to create Southern food that would be equal to or rivalry anything in fine dining.