Readers of the Scene's food blog, Bites, first encountered Chris Chamberlain when he would steal a few minutes from his day job at a paper company to chat online about all things edible. His handle, "CeeElCee," and his convivial and omnivorous voice became such staples in the Scene's online dialogue about restaurants that Chamberlain eventually joined the Bites team. Since then, he has penned more than 1,000 posts on everything from kitchen gear to barbecue, including a popular wine-and-spirits feature that earned him the nickname The Wandering Wino. These days, the Nashville native and Stanford University alumnus is doing business as The Southern Foodie, and has a new travel guide-cum-cookbook titled The Southern Foodie: 100 Places to Eat in the South Before You Die (and the Recipes That Made Them Famous). At this weekend's Southern Festival of Books (see coverage beginning on p. 182), Chamberlain will co-host a session titled "Traditions and Evolution in Today's Southern Kitchens," 11 a.m. Saturday at Legislative Plaza, Room 12. Meanwhile, he made time for his old friends at the Scene to talk about wresting recipes from chefs, saving bacon grease in jars and selling The Southern Foodie on QVC.
Describe the process of finding and exploring 100 restaurants.
The plan was to provide profiles from 100 restaurants in the 13 Southern states, basically the SEC and ACC. I knew from the beginning that I'd have to get recipes from more like 125 places to ensure that we'd end up with an even hundred after the editors got through with the project, so the task seemed a little daunting at first. I wanted to have a good mix of high-end and down-home restaurants, with an eye toward making sure that the recipes would be accessible to the home cook, i.e. no sous vide, lots of pan-frying.
The first batch of restaurants was easy, since they were places where I already had personal experiences. I knew that I wanted chef Tyler Brown [of the Capitol Grille] in the book, since he does such amazing things with farm-to-table upscale Southern food. I remembered a trip to Doe's Eat Place in Greenville, Miss., from years ago and decided it was exactly the kind of place I wanted to share with readers. Doe's is located in a neighborhood where you'd be scared to park your car if you didn't realize that all the other cars in the area are also folks eating at Doe's, and that the line of people out the door can keep an eye on things for you. When I heard that the owner of Doe's was willing to participate, I was as tickled as when I bagged any James Beard or Iron Chef winner for the project. Especially helpful was my association with the Southern Foodways Alliance, whose membership is always willing to share their favorite secret hole-in-the-wall in any town.
How hard was it getting chefs to share their recipes?
Even after visiting these places, the hard part was actually getting the chefs to hit "send" on the email with their recipes. Almost everyone I spoke with was willing to participate, but the busy schedule of a working kitchen often doesn't allow much time to interact with a food writer. It took a while for me to learn the best time to follow up with each chef, since their schedules were so different. I had to make repeat visits to several places to physically sit in the kitchen and pick up the recipes, either because that was the only way to make sure I got the goods or because some of the smaller, more rural restaurants didn't have access to "the email machine."
What did your research lead you to understand about Southern food in general?
I was struck by how similar the recipes were from different areas of the South, often distinguishable only by the substitution of a few key ingredients based on local availability. Red rice from Savannah could fool a Cajun into thinking he was eating his mama's red beans and rice. Meanwhile, both a resident of the Mississippi Delta and someone from the hills of Appalachia would be quite comfortable eating the same lunch of pan-fried catfish and buttermilk biscuits.
What were some of your favorite discoveries?
One of the most unexpected places where I discovered a great meal was in Terminal D of the Atlanta Airport. One Flew South is an outstanding restaurant where Chef Duane Nutter serves his brand of "Southernational" food to hungry travelers, despite the fact that every ingredient in the kitchen has to come through the TSA checkpoint, and all the knives in the kitchen are chained to the counter.
Have you solved the mystery of why Southerners save bacon grease in jars?
I'm not hipster-fanatical about bacon, but I do recognize that it does make most things better. I was fortunate enough to travel with Allan Benton, the patron saint of smoked belly, for a weekend a while back. He gave me a couple of pounds of his smoky goodness, which I proceeded to bake in the oven for a week's worth of perfect BLTs. When my girlfriend asked what I was going to do with that Mason jar full of bacon grease that I put in the refrigerator, I told her, "We're gonna make your vinaigrettes a hell of a lot better!" I was right. There's a recipe in the book for a Southern Fried Chicken BLT from Tupelo Honey in Asheville. It calls for cooking the bacon and then adding the drippings to the fry oil for the chicken. How much better could that be? The answer is none — none better.
Describe the process of selling your books on QVC.
I was incredibly impressed by the whole QVC organization. Rather than trying to be a slick sales organization, they believe in establishing themselves as trust agents for their viewers. Here's an example of the sort of confidence they engender: Last year they sold $280 million in perfume. These sales are to people who had no opportunity to smell the product, just because a nice lady told them it was worth the money. Shoppers learn to like and trust the hosts, and my job was just to be an expert on my own product, not to try to sell it. It must have worked well, since we sold about 1,000 books a minute during my first of two appearances. I've joked that I couldn't sell 1,000 in a week if I was listing them at $10 with a free $20 bill as a bookmark.
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4. Kien Giang
5. Jim & Nick's