Foundation celebrates African-American female chefs

Tiffany Derry assisted Celestia Mobley as she prepared she-crab soup with benne wafers.

The Grey, which opened one year ago in Savannah, has received national media attention for its painstaking restoration of the city’s old Greyhound bus depot, its daring interpretations of Southern cuisine and its chef, Mashama Bailey, one of the few African-American women to helm a restaurant on the James Beard Foundation’s radar.

As Bailey earlier this year told The New York Times, “To be a black woman in the South, in a city like Savannah, and to have such a stage to cook and perform on, it’s mind-blowing.”

But on a Monday night last month, Bailey shared the stage: As host chef for “The Black Hand in the Pot,” a dinner sponsored by The Edna Lewis Foundation, Bailey invited four fellow African-American female chefs to join her in preparing a multicourse meal. In the upscale dining sphere, opportunities to work in a kitchen staffed exclusively by black professionals are exceedingly rare.

“Tiffany (Derry, a Dallas chef who finished highly on “Top Chef Season 7”) said she did it once,” foundation chairman Joe Randall said. “The other women, never.”

In his welcoming remarks, owner John Morisano suggested the hurdles he encountered while opening The Grey were ultimately justified by the existence of a venue where events such as “The Black Hand in the Pot” can take place.

Ruth Lewis Smith, Edna Lewis’ sister, took one of the seats of honor at the dinner. “I am happy and happy and happy to be here,” she said.

Born in 1916 to a farming family in north central Virginia, Lewis is widely celebrated within the food-and-beverage community for upholding principles of plain Southern cookery at her fashionable New York City restaurant. In her groundbreaking cookbooks, Lewis — who spent part of her career at Middleton Place — marshalled childhood memories to make a quiet case for local, seasonal and traditional cuisine. Yet her legacy is still fragile. Until The New York Times Magazine last month published a lengthy appreciation of Lewis, many Americans weren’t familiar with her achievements.

“Edna Lewis is in this!,” one guest at the dinner shrieked, approaching Randall with a folded-up copy of the magazine containing the story for which he’d been interviewed. “Did you see it? I read the whole thing!”

The Edna Lewis Foundation is a fairly new endeavor, tracing its history to the 2012 Minority Chef Summit in Jacksonville, Fla. “The chefs were groaning about not getting publicity, not getting their fair share,” Randall recalls. Since then, the nonprofit has organized dinners in honor of Lewis’ birthday, and is planning to develop additional events to “honor, cultivate and preserve” African-American culinary history, including a possible gathering at Middleton this spring.

“We are promoting the contributions that African Americans have made to food in America by recognizing those that have come before us, and those coming up now,” Randall said, adding, “When (Lewis) died, people thought that was the end of her.”

Randall’s retort came in the form of The Grey’s dinner party, featuring an array of dishes that embodied Lewis’ elegance, as well as her reverence for the Southern landscape and the recipes it inspired. Derry served okra stew with crab ravigote; Atlanta’s Jennifer Hill Booker prepared a collard green salad with pickled tomatoes; Bailey roasted guinea fowl and baked popovers; and Celestia Mobley of Jacksonville presented she-crab soup with benne wafers.

Introducing her dish, Mobley remarked on the continuing influence of the foundation’s eponym. “Edna Lewis is such an icon,” she said.