Having recently completed a graduate thesis delving into the mentorships and apprenticeships which strengthened Charleston’s centuries-old community of black chefs and caterers, Kevin Mitchell is now planning a dinner to honor his culinary influences.
“It’s a great thing for me to honor these people who put me on course to become a chef, and say thank you for the inspiration,” says Mitchell, who returned to his role as Culinary Institute of Charleston chef instructor after earning his master’s in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi.
Mitchell is presenting “Journey of a Southern Chef” on Dec. 15 in conjunction with Transformation Table, a monthly series of dinners organized by community activist Tina Singleton to stoke diversity and unity at suppertime. Mitchell says he and Singleton have been trying to get a date on the calendar for more than a year.
“What I have decided to do is dedicate each course to a black chef that has influenced me,” Mitchell says. “I will feature dishes of chefs Joe Randall, Darryl Evans, Patrick Clark and one special dish with my grandmother Doris in mind.”
Additionally, Mitchell says he plans to incorporate ingredients which turned up in his thesis, including sweet potatoes, chicken and field peas. He’s also preparing a final course featuring bananas, since that was Evans’ favorite dessert fruit.
“Any time I’ve done an event and worked with Darryl Evans, he always did something similar to banana pudding,” Mitchell says of the influential Atlanta chef who died in 2014. “The last event we did together was the inaugural event for Atlanta Wine & Food, and Darryl did this really updated banana pudding.”
At Transformation Table, Mitchell will serve whole roasted and glazed bananas, spiked with coffee beans and cinnamon sticks. “I didn’t necessarily want to do banana pudding,” he says.
The adaptation of traditions and signature dishes is a recurrent theme in Mitchell’s thesis, “From Black Hands to White Mouths: Charleston’s Freed and Enslaved Cooks and Their Influence on the Food of the South.” He traces various professional lineages, such as the one represented by James F. Perrineau, who in the 1920s ran the lunch program at Burke High School, where he was also the janitor.
Perrineau, a caterer for the St. Cecilia Society, apprenticed with Oscar Castion, whose brother had learned pastry from Tom Tully. Tully, in turn, had studied with Nat Fuller, who in the years before the Civil War was widely considered Charleston’s greatest caterer.
But Mitchell also explored connections between African-American chefs and cooks which were considerably more vexed. For instance, he chronicled Sally Seymour, who purchased fellow African-Americans to help her in the kitchen.
“That particular type of labor was the only type of labor available to her, because whites definitely didn’t want to work for her, and if you were a freed black you wouldn’t want to do that as well,” Mitchell says. “She had no choice.”
Still, Mitchell wanted to write about Seymour for the same reason he’s now probing his own past.
“I just felt it was important for me to tell the story so people understand the complexities,” he says.
For more information about Transformation Table, visit transformationtable.com.