Who Gets to Be a Southerner?
A group of chefs is exploring what it means to be "brown in the South"Maggie Borden
June 06, 2019
It’s Sunday afternoon, and there’s a party going on in downtown Raleigh. Revelers crowd Cheetie Kumar’s restaurant Garland and sister music venue Kings, cocktails in hand as they sample mac ‘n cheese, deviled eggs, succotash, and more. But although the menu seems classically Southern, closer inspection reveals that the deviled eggs are infused with a Sri Lankan spice blend, and the mac ‘n cheese is actually a riff on a stew made by the Bhori people of northwest India. Over in the corner, guests are lining up at a photobooth to be showered in colored powder as the camera flashes. This isn’t your average happy hour: we’re celebrating the Hindu festival of Holi with the chefs of Brown in the South.
These days it seems like we have the whole world of food at our fingertips—scroll through Instagram and you’ll see chefs in Peru plating ceviche, turn on Netflix and you’ll catch street vendors charring satay on the sidewalks in Singapore. With so much access, it’s no surprise that a common reaction has been to fixate on categorizing and codifying, on labeling something as “authentic” and of a particular culture’s tradition. But neither identity nor cuisine are static, a notion that sparked the idea for the Brown in the South (BitS) event series for chefs Meherwan Irani and Vishwesh Bhatt.
It all began in a parking lot. Irani was at his first Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) symposium in Oxford, Mississippi, attending the conference with Bhatt, a longtime friend. Both men had emigrated from India to the U.S. for school, and now found themselves settled in the South—Irani in Asheville, North Carolina, and Bhatt in Oxford. As they chatted about the symposium, themed around Latinx communities and connections to the South, Irani asked his friend: “You’ve lived in Oxford most of your life, but do you still think of yourself as an Indian who happens to live in the South, or do you actually think of yourself as a Southerner?” For Bhatt, the answer was surprisingly straightforward: he was a Southerner.
He explored that idea further at a panel held before the Holi party at Garland. “It’s that simple. I am from here. I have made my home here. This is where I have decided to be, but that doesn't mean that there aren’t issues. Some of the social issues we talk about in the South are the same ones I grew up with in Gujarat—issues of class and discrimination,” Bhatt explained.
For Irani, claiming a Southern identity was not as neat and tidy. After living in California for over a decade, he moved to Asheville in 2005, and for years would identify himself as an immigrant living in the South. The change came gradually, as Irani built up a successful collection of businesses across the region. “I realized that the hang-up wasn’t the South, it was me,” he said. “I was still hung up on this idea that the South is not as diverse as other parts of the country. And that’s not to say that the South isn’t complicated, but change only starts if people like me...start recognizing that we live here, we have our restaurants here, we have our families here. We are now Southern, too.”
Back in that parking lot in Oxford, an idea was forming. The more Irani and Bhatt thought about it, the more they realized there was a whole group of Indian chefs who had made the South their home, become successful entrepreneurs, and felt accepted by their local communities. How did they identify? What did it mean for them to be “brown” in the South? They needed to talk about it, and naturally, it had to be over food.
The first event, “Desi Diner,” was held at Chai Pani Decatur in early 2018 with superstar Indian chefs from across the South—Cheetie Kumar, Asha Gomez, Maneet Chauhan, and Irani and Bhatt—featuring their versions of classic diner fare (think Kerala fried chicken and grits upma), made from 100-percent Southern ingredients. A second dinner, “Indian Summer” at Chauhan Ale & Masala House in Nashville followed in August 2018, and Kumar hosted the third installment, “Brown in the South and the Holi Grail” in Raleigh in March 2019. A fourth is planned for this fall.
Each event has grown more ambitious, bringing in larger crowds and expanding the roster of talented chefs crafting the menu. Irani anticipates it’ll only keep expanding: “in Raleigh, [we had] nine chefs, and we’ve barely scratched the surface of Indian chefs, let alone other cultures.” The proceeds of all three events so far have gone to support the SFA, with director John T. Edge attending each one.
Irani knows that this series is just one piece of a larger puzzle, a broader conversation about the many hands that built Southern cuisine in the past, and those that continue to shape it today. The dinners are not only for the chefs, but for the guests, as well. “[The dinners are] for us to have that conversation about embracing the South and raising up our hands and being counted as Southerners, as well as [for] the diners...to get a different perspective on what the South looks like,” he explained. “We’re bringing a lot to that table, in terms of our Indian heritage, our traditions and techniques, but we’re still presenting to you what we believe is our version of Southern food.”
The public seems to have an appetite for this definition of Southern cuisine, at both the BitS events, and beyond. Just six weeks after doling out braised pork tacos (on corn–methi thepla) at Garland, Bhatt accepted the 2019 James Beard Award for Best Chef: South. He thanked friends and family, his staff, fellow chefs, and the SFA. But Bhatt also paused to thank the city of Oxford, which welcomed him a quarter of a century ago, and embraced him as one of their own. It was just as Bhatt wrote in the bio tucked into the menu at the “Holi Grail” event: “No, I am not...the chef that cooks the comfort foods of your childhood. I am not here to alter Grandma’s fried chicken recipe, nor am I attempting to mess up a perfectly good pecan pie. I am a chef who wants to add to that story...I want to show that the ingredients of the modern Southern pantry were very much the ingredients of my mother’s pantry as well. I want to tell you my story the best way I know—through my food.”