SFA redefines what Southern means and what the modern South is.
Chef and restaurateur Meherwan Irani had heard about SFA for years, and assumed it was a club for chefs who held fancy and indulgent dinners. Born in London to progressive Indian parents, Irani grew up near Mumbai. He taught himself to cook after moving to Columbia, South Carolina, for graduate school in the 1990s. After a stint in sales and management in San Francisco, Irani and his wife Molly Irani moved to Asheville, North Carolina, to raise their daughter in a slower-paced city.
When the 2008 financial crisis wrecked the luxury homebuilder he’d been working for, he did some soul searching. One day, it struck him: do what you know. He would open a restaurant.
His wife was skeptical. Irani had no restaurant training, but when he scribbled out a menu in 20 minutes, she was sold. He opened a small chaat house called Chai Pani in 2009 in Asheville, on a budget of $70,000. Irani served the Indian street food he’d grown up on: pakoras and uttapam.
The Chai Pani Restaurant Group added a second location in Decatur, Georgia, in 2013 and three years later opened a kebab grill called Botiwalla at Atlanta’s Ponce City Market. In Asheville, they opened a bar and lounge called MG Road in 2012, and three years later added a whole-hog barbecue restaurant called Buxton Hall. The staff has swelled to 200.
Irani frequently gets invited to cook at fundraisers and festivals. A film festival brought him to Oxford, Mississippi, where restaurateurs Vishwesh Bhatt and John Currence introduced him to Edge. They chatted about life and work and hit it off. Irani bought a ticket to the 2017 SFA Fall Symposium, whose theme was El Sur Latino. He thought he’d meet new farmers or suppliers. He was shocked when speakers shared raw stories about racism and prejudice, and also spoke passionately about embracing their Southernness and redefining the modern South.
“The ground shifted below me,” Irani said. “The way I saw myself, my identity in the South. I’m no longer an Indian chef who happens to cook and live in the South. I’m a Southern chef who happens to be from India.”
Irani wanted to celebrate other brown-skinned people. He joined Bhatt, Gomez, Maneet Chauhan (owner of several Nashville restaurants), and Cheetie Kumar (chef and owner of Garland in Raleigh) to host a cultural exposition and dinner at Chai Pani Decatur in January of 2018 that benefitted the SFA. The chefs blended Indian and Southern staples: Kerala fried chicken (sourced from White Oak Pastures), shrimp over an upma porridge made of grits, and gingered cabbage with collard greens. They called it Brown in the South.
It was a sold-out sensation, covered by Food & Wine, Atlanta magazine, and others. Wilson from Fullsteam Brewing drove six hours to attend, and others flew in from as far away as Chicago. Irani and his colleagues are organizing recurring dinners, and Brown in the South will soon host a website that gathers news, opinion pieces, and features on minority chefs, growers, writers, and other influencers. Irani plans to use Brown in the South as a platform to communicate with fellow chefs and restaurateurs.
“People think you have to project this image – the awards, the events, the Instagram followers, the food and wine festivals,” Irani said. “But I want to tell people ‘Don’t get distracted by all that junk.’”
Another example of the SFA’s evolving definition of what is Southern: an Indiana-born chef named Paul Fehribach, who co-owns a Chicago restaurant called Big Jones that specializes in Southern heirloom cooking, made Mobile-style gumbo at the 2018 Fall Symposium. It might surprise some SFA members that a chef from the North who has never lived in the South was spotlighted as an expert in an Alabama dish.
“A lot of people are going to be saying ‘What the heck?,’” says Melissa Booth Hall, the managing director of SFA. “But there are several good reasons to have him.”
Fehribach has established himself as a knowledgeable chef who has studied these Southern staples, and knows a great deal about how and why these foods came to be. He also has insights on how these dishes migrated to the North decades ago when Southerners looking for steady work uprooted their families and brought their cuisine with them. That’s a departure from its early years, when the SFA would book speakers based on past or present residency in the South, Edge said.
“Before, we thought about roots. Now, we think more about connectivity.”
If SFA runs a piece about grandma’s cornbread, the article or podcast will likely have a deeper and richer story about how immigrants are making this staple their own, says Bentley.
“Maybe your mother is Korean and your father is African-American and that influenced how she learned to make this dish,” Bentley said. “Or maybe your mother is a Latina woman who has lived in the South for 20 years and she grew up on corn tortillas and she uses some of those techniques to make her cornbread. You have to bring this larger story of making this Southern staple in very different ways and how this, this is the changing South.”