Chef Todd Richards likes to prepare meals as his way of unifying cultures and diverse people. The executive chef and culinary innovator at downtown Atlanta’s White Oak Kitchen and Cocktails is setting his sights on creating a mouth-watering enterprise, Richards’ Southern Fried, a brick-and-mortar concept restaurant around fried chicken.
Building what is to become the first of his dream franchise in Atlanta’s industrial-styled Krog Street Market, Richards’ Southern Fried is the latest epicurean inner sanctum for the self-taught, Five Diamond Restaurant award winner. “I really wanted to do something that represents the neighborhood that I live in,” says Richards immediately following a vegetable grilling class he instructed during the sixth annual Atlanta Food and Wine Festival (AFWF).
“Fried chicken is the most community-driven food in the world. You cannot communicate if you don’t have something in common, and fried chicken is the thing that brings people together.” Born and raised in Chicago, Richards, a Southern Foodways Alliance scholarship recipient, remembers having to go to his neighbor’s house for fried chicken. It was never cooked in his home.
Now at Richards’ Southern Fried, the chef will highlight three flavors of fried chicken, classic, hot and Richards’ hot. A chicken sandwich that comes in the same three flavors, Richards declares, “has a mind of its own.” The former Iron Chef America contestant has a hearty appetite for eating Richards’ hot chicken cold, preferring the wing, the next day. He also lists jalapeno cream corn, custom potato wedges, vegetable chow chow and cucumber, tomato and onion salad as side dishes.
Rice pudding and strawberry rhubarb cobbler will round out Richards’ Southern Fried menu. The former partner in Atlanta-based establishments The Shed at Glenwood and The Pig & the Pearl explains his precise cooking techniques, taking two days to prepare his flavorful, impeccably seasoned chicken.
“We’re not shying away on the sides or using lesser ingredients,” says Richards relaxing in the lobby of Loews Hotel Atlanta. “We’re still using non-GMO corn and local vegetables as much as possible. If it’s not delicious, then shame on us.”
Richards, who previously held stints in kitchens at the Ritz-Carlton in both Palm Beach and Atlanta’s Buckhead properties, adds, “It was a rite of passage to eat fried chicken. We didn’t grow up eating a lot of it, but it was so much reverence for it when we ate it. It sat on the stove, and it only got better as time went on.”
A seasoning and gardening aficionado, Richards relocated to Atlanta in 1992 after visiting for Freaknik. “I came and pretty much never left,” recalls the multiple James Beard Foundation Best Chef Southeast semi-finalist and concept developer behind One Flew South sipping from a glass bottle of Coca-Cola. “It was a great time, and that was the reason I stayed.”
Along with breaking new ground with savory, flavorful recipes, Richards now prefers to use the kitchen as a space for defying stringent roles for ethnic minorities. Being able to manage his own establishment, the former cook at the Four Seasons Atlanta’s Park 75 Restaurant believes, is a step in the right direction. He lists inequities for chefs of color such as lower pay and higher interest rates for student loans for aspiring chefs pursuing culinary programs as challenges.
“The playing field is not level,” proclaims Richards, one of AFWF’s esteemed Advisory Council members. “Opportunities for chefs to open up new restaurants become smaller. You have less money going in and more going out.” Constantly advocating for inclusiveness for minorities and underrepresented communities behind the stove, Richards shares that he has ongoing conversations with AFWF founders Elizabeth Feichter and Dominique Love about how they can make the four-day extravaganza celebrating food and beverage traditions below the Mason-Dixon Line more reflective of various demographics.
Richards takes being inclusive quite seriously. “To this day every year for the festival, it’s what we talk about,” he says. “There’s a bigger mission more than people really know. It’s not just about how much food you can eat or how much whiskey you can drink. It’s also how do you strengthen the community and give everyone the opportunity to display their goods.”
Allowing women equal opportunity also compels Richards. Women chefs, he explains, are often automatically made pastry chefs. “Women get a bad rap in the kitchen,” he says. “People think that’s where women belong (on the pastry station). Some of the best chefs I know are women who can work any station in any kitchen at any time of the day.”
Richards appreciates women chefs by his side because he says they provide balance. Their unique perspectives, strength and perseverance, he adds, enhances his team. “It’s about getting things done timely,” says Richards. “They communicate a lot differently. They’re fearless, and it’s how we become better.”
Even though obvious inequities and disparities continue to affect minorities and women at restaurants, Richards does suggest that cooks stand their ground without constantly pointing out prejudices. Inspired by both house and jazz music when he preps dishes, Richards urges those cooks to constantly strive for excellence despite the odds.
“Be better than everyone else,” suggests Richards. “Communicate effectively without ostracizing yourself outside the rest of the kitchen. If you go into a place and state the obvious repeatedly, it become obnoxious and no one wants to listen to you. Rely on your skill and professionalism in order to make it.”
What fulfills a selfless Richards these days is being able to develop and groom a new legion of culinary masters. Stepping into the role of restauranteur affords him more latitude to act as a mentor.
“It’s not really about myself,” addresses Richards. “It’s watching my chefs become chefs. It doesn’t mean they have to go through very fine dining restaurants. They can open up whatever they want to open. I just want them to do it better than I did.”
Anytime Richards trains new cooks, it’s important to him that the novice chefs find what they’re best at. He prides himself on being a great listener and making everyone feel comfortable with one another. He reiterates that his ability to evolve from being an executive chef-turned-business owner is rooted in his ability to groom the next generation.
“My legacy is not about how many restaurants I open,” insists Richards. “It’s how many chefs that can come after me out of my kitchen. That’s where my strength comes in.”
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for the Burton Wire. He is also contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.