Food is an indelible part of Southern culture. Fried chicken, grits, gumbo, cornbread, jambalaya, fried green tomatoes, po’boys, catfish, collard greens: The list of signature Southern flavors goes on and on.
But while these iconic dishes will forever have a place on Southern menus, there’s more to today’s Southern cooking than just the classics.
From Savannah to Nashville, from New Orleans to Richmond, chefs are integrating new ingredients and new influences to take Southern cooking to new and exciting heights.
These five culinary experiences offer a behind-the-scenes look at how this transformation is unfolding in kitchens across the region.
River City Food Tours
The array of restaurant styles available in Richmond proves that today’s “Southern” cooking often has an international flair.
During one of River City Food Tours’ walking tours of the city, you could sample crispy crab tacos at Wong Gonzalez, New Zealand-style savory pies at Proper Pie, moules frites at Can Can, wood-fired pastries at Sub Rosa and more.
“Richmond’s food scene is always changing,” said Brian Beard, River City Food Tours’ founding owner. “Every week we hear about new or soon-to-open restaurants. The people of Richmond love food that’s local, interesting and delicious.”
The company offers three tour options: the Church Hill Food Tour, which explores the city’s oldest neighborhood; the Carytown Food Tour, which travels through the eclectic area dubbed the Mile of Style; and the Arts District Food Tour, which takes visitors to parts of the Jackson Ward and the Monroe Ward for a look at historically significant architecture, unique art galleries and under-the-radar restaurants. All tours last roughly three hours and cover about 1.5 miles; private group tours are available.
“For those new to Richmond who love history, the Church Hill Food Tour is a great starting point,” Beard said. “On that tour, you’ll enjoy tons of great food, of course, but you’ll also get to see the hill from which Richmond was given its name; learn about St. John’s Church, where Patrick Henry made his famous ‘Give me liberty, or give me death’ speech; and hear other interesting stories about the city’s early days.”
Walk Eat Nashville
Visitors to Music City might assume that Nashville’s creative energies center mainly around the country music culture it’s famous for. But that same artistic vibe elevates and electrifies the culinary culture in Nashville, resulting in a food scene that is both collaborative and creative, said Karen-Lee Ryan, founder and CEO of Walk Eat Nashville, which offers food tours of the city.
“The food scene here is rapidly evolving,” Ryan said. “The chefs here work really hard to collaborate with one another. It’s in the DNA of Nashville — that creative process. Our chefs are taking these Southern ingredients and integrating other influences, taking the Southern classics and putting a new spin on them to elevate them just a bit.”
Walk Eat Nashville offers four tour itineraries: the East Nashville Tour, the Midtown Tour, the SoBro/Downtown Nashville Tour and the Nashville Eats Tour. Each three-hour tour is led by former journalists and food writers like Ryan who have in-depth knowledge of the city’s best places to eat.
First-timers to the city should consider starting with the downtown tour, Ryan said.
“There has been so much change to the downtown food scene even in just the last five years,” she said. “The downtown tour focuses on the culinary gems on both sides of Broadway, which is where all the honky-tonks are and where visitors are likely going to end up at some point in their time in Nashville. We’re showing you all the great local, chef-owned, hidden-gem places to eat just north and just south of Broadway and, at the same time, filling you in on all the Music City landmarks.”
Tour participants not only sample fare at each stop along the tour but also get a chance to meet and talk with the creative forces behind the menus.
“We interact with chefs and owners at most of our stops, so it definitely gives you a behind-the-scenes feel,” Ryan said. “You get to hear first-hand how the food scene is changing in Nashville, what motivates these chefs and how they’re using their ingredients.”
Savannah Taste Experience
If you travel to Savannah expecting to be served only your grandmother’s Southern staples, you’re missing out.
“Once you’re here, you realize that Savannah’s food is different than you thought it would be,” said Donald Card, co-founder and director of business development for the Savannah Taste Experience, which offers walking tours of the city’s culinary scene. “It’s got these Southern roots, but it’s taken to a completely new level.”
The company’s First Squares Food Tour, a three-hour walking tour along the city’s historic squares, offers the perfect introduction to Savannah’s booming food culture.
Offered seven days a week, the First Squares tour showcases stops along the city market area close to Bay Street, an area rich in restaurants, museums and historic architecture.
The company also has a second tour, the Famous and Secret East Side Food Tour. It highlights less-visited parts of town, including more residential areas of Savannah’s historic district.
On both tours, participants stop at six restaurants, enjoying food tastings at each. Groups are capped at 14 to 16 participants to allow for active dialogue between guests and guide. Larger groups can be accommodated through staggered rotations.
In recent years, Savannah has become a true foodie destination with the big-name chefs and new restaurants to prove it. Tour stops rotate regularly but include restaurants like 22 Square, the Ordinary Pub, Pie Society and others, each of them offering a different take on “new” Southern classics.
“The city is going through this food renaissance, if you will,” Card said.
New Orleans School of Cooking
Since 1980, the New Orleans School of Cooking has been sharing the Food, Fun and Folklore of Louisiana cooking with guests from around the world.
Here, visitors can opt for either a demonstration class, where they’ll watch a skilled chef prepare a classic Cajun or Creole meal, or a hands-on class, where they’ll try cooking an iconic New Orleans dish yourself.
Either way, they get to enjoy a full meal at the end of the class and learn not only recipes and techniques, but also the history behind how and why dishes like gumbo, shrimp and grits, and bananas Foster have become so synonymous with the Big Easy.
The public demonstration classes can accommodate up to 68 attendees; the hands-on classes are more intimate and are capped at 10 participants. Private and special events are also available.
“Our chefs are culinary trained,” said Christina Ebberman, director of marketing for the New Orleans School of Cooking. “Many of them have been trained in culinary institutes here. Many have worked in restaurants throughout the city. And they just love New Orleans cuisine and love to teach people about it.”
Equal parts cooking how-to, folklore lesson and fine-dining experience, the classes are a bit like a fine New Orleans gumbo. “Our guests love the tall tales and the history that they learn in the classes,” Ebberman said.
Viking Cooking School
Groups can learn to make classic Southern fried chicken and other Southern specialties just like Minny Jackson’s from the best-selling novel “The Help” at the Viking Cooking School in Greenwood, Mississippi. The class is one of their guests’ perennial favorites.
But visitors can also learn how to create Italian pasta dishes, Chinese and Japanese mainstays, French Quarter fare, Cuban classics and more.
“We have classes here that feature every type of cuisine,” said Kimberly Gnemi, the school’s general manager.
The school offers both large-scale demonstration-style classes and smaller, more intimate hands-on workshops, where 12 to 14 participants create their own dishes.
“The most popular class is our hands-on workshop, which lasts three hours,” Gnemi said. “We split the class into teams, and the team completes an entire menu of four to five courses. Then at the end of class, you sit and eat everything, so you get to enjoy a full meal.”
Demonstration classes have the feel of watching a cooking program in progress, one that’s led by a seasoned and engaging chef. These sessions can typically accommodate 20 attendees at the cooking school or as many as 45 in an auditorium at the Viking corporate headquarters, also in Greenwood, when reserved by the group planner.
“We have hundreds of recipes, and we rotate our classes frequently,” Gnemi said. We have lots of seasonal classes as well, including our farm-to-table class, where we’re using fresh vegetables as they’re in season.”