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Paul Fehribach
Paul Fehribach   Photo: Grant Kesller

Paul Fehribach on How He Recreates Authentic Southern Food at Big Jones

The Andersonville restaurant’s executive chef is resurrecting the tastes of the region on the North Side, with the help of farmers, researchers, and seed savers who are rebooting Southern cuisine.

I was tremendously excited to get The Big Jones Cookbook: Recipes for Savoring the Heritage of Regional Southern Cuisine by Paul Fehribach, executive chef and co-owner of Big Jones in Andersonville. I love Big Jones, and Fehribach’s dedication to preserving and resurrecting dishes from a wide variety of Southern cuisines, and how those dishes are grounded in regional history. And some of those dishes are part of my cultural inheritance (I grew up in Virginia), so it’s exciting to see dishes such as spoonbread, sort of a cornbread souffle, which is currently on the brunch menu.

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So I was not only expecting recipes that would bring the history of my own home country to my table; I was expecting them to be enriched with Fehribach’s lifelong interest in history and geography. I wasn’t disappointed. Here’s an example:

Special tax incentives for wool production led to a peculiar (and delicious) type of barbecue in the western part of Kentucky around Owensboro, with mutton as the meat and sorghum molasses as the baste.

Historical tax policy and barbecue; I can’t resist. Here’s another, about one of my favorite foods:

Red velvet cake is another one of those foods associated with the South that is wildly popular, yet with origins cloaked in mystery. It’s likely that older forms of cocoa powder, before alkali processing became the norm, would turn a rusty red color in the presence of the baking soda during baking. Once alkali processing of cocoa was standard, red food color was introduced to achieve the red color when desired. This theory is consistent with the appearance of recipes for “red devil’s food cake” in early twentieth-century cookbooks.

Fehribach’s recipe calls for beets—he recommends bull’s blood beets for their color—because not only “the earthy flavor of beets with the bitter cocoa and aromatic vanilla and orange was a no-brainer,” but for the “much more natural rust color.” The recipe draws its vanilla and orange zest from the Lee Brothers, and the beets from “a recipe for chocolate beet cake in an old ‘road food’ cookbook spotlighting a roadside diner in North Dakota.”

It’s a concise introduction to Fehribach’s approach, which draws on home cooking and high cuisine, using modern techniques to “reboot” old dishes. I spoke with Fehribach about his journey from a southern Indiana farm to a Chicago noodle shop to Big Jones, as well as what’s influenced him along the way.

Photo: Courtesy of the University of Chicago Press

You grew up in southern Indiana—you were eating Southern food, or at least a cousin of it, but didn’t realize it.

If you go to Louisville or Frankfort, the [beginning] of the Buffalo Trace, and cross the river and head west, in about 45 minutes you’re in my hometown. I didn’t realize it at the time, but fried chicken was a big celebration food. It wasn’t something that you ate every day, or regularly. We didn’t eat grits; we ate mashed potatoes, or some other form of potato. Pickles, preserves, jams, jellies, kitchen gardens, pork. We ate a lot of biscuits. Squirrel, possum.

I didn’t realize it at the time because you get into school and you start taking the history classes, and 150 years later the Civil War is still the defining moment of our nation’s history. There’s the Mason-Dixon line, which cuts to the south of where we were, so we thought of ourselves as Yankees, or Northerners. It just never would have occurred to me that we were eating Southern food, or food that you would consider part of the Southern diaspora.

The Buffalo Trace, which is where my five-times great grandparents settled, is probably the earliest disembarking point of the Southern diaspora to move north. The migratory patterns back then were to go through the Carolina or Virginia Piedmont and catch the Cumberland Gap. You’d wind up in Kentucky, but then you could go south and west and wind up in Tennessee and eventually Mississippi and Alabama. People don’t realize this, but the northern parts of Mississippi and Alabama were settled by the same migration patterns. They just went the other direction.

Jasper is parallel, or close to parallel, to Louisville and St. Louis.

Geographically, if you cross the river from Louisville, you’re still in the same geographic area. It doesn’t switch to the North until you get to Martinsville, which is just south of Indianapolis. In Illinois it’s south of Champaign. It’s still just hilliness from the Appalachian mountain range that continues going down all the way up into the south central part of the state. 

And you had Appalachian influences.

One of the points I make in The Big Jones Cookbook is that one of the things that distinguishes Appalachian cooking from the rest of Southern cooking is that the African influence is minimal. Very small landowners, independent farmers, they didn’t have use for or money to buy slaves. You didn’t have the critical mass of people of African descent to influence the culinary norms of the region. You can grow okra in Appalachia, but it’s not a particularly important vegetable. Certainly not like it is in Louisiana or the Low Country, both of which have very large populations of people from African ancestry who were able to retain a fair amount of their cultural identity in spite of what they were dealing with.

So you find things like okra and melons being much more important. These things that come from Africa: benne [Ed.: sesame, basically, but it’s complicated] being much more important in those areas than they are in Appalachia.

Big Jones fried steak
Virginia fried steak with creamed barley and peas at Big Jones   Photo: Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune

There are a couple points in the book, like when you make a cinnamon dredge for pork chops when you were eight, or when you would be disappointed that you didn’t get buckwheat pancakes because of the taste, that make it sound like you had a sensitive palate when you were a kid.

This is one of those things that I never really appreciated growing up. I realized that my dad’s side of the family gave me a lot of exposure to really, really fresh farm produce. We got raw milk from my godfather for years when I was younger, and I never liked store-bought milk; I still don’t. I like cooking with it, I love ice cream, cheese, all that stuff, but milk out of a jug, I still don’t like the taste of it.

I hated tomatoes for years. I never really realized that it was because I hadn’t had a garden tomato since I was four or five years old. When I got my first chef’s job—this is in the early ’90s in Bloomington, Indiana—I got a taste of a local farm tomato, and it was a revelation. All of these things just sort of come rushing back to you that you’d thought you’d forgotten.

Were you messing around in the kitchen when you were a kid?

Any chance I could. I have a twin sister, and she liked cooking also. Sometimes we would team up and cook. Pam and I particularly loved helping in the kitchen.

You ended up in Bloomington. Did you go there for college?

I went to the music school there, which was a great experience. After five years of that—I was a music education major, and a pretty good trombone player—starting to think about that next step, my trombone teacher is telling other students that I’m going to be a maverick in the music education field. I’m asking myself if I want to deal with school administration.

As far as playing goes, I couldn’t get the kind of job I would really want, like the CSO or the St. Louis orchestra. Those jobs rarely open up, and when they do, 1,500 people send their tapes in.

I didn’t see myself doing that either. I was cooking in restaurants at the time, working my way through school, and it came naturally to gravitate into that notion that I had when I was a little kid, that I would have my own restaurant some day.

You had that notion as a kid?

It’s actually kind of funny. I don’t think I’ve ever told anybody this. Do you remember the TV show Alice?

No, a little before my time.

They had this guy Mel—it was a diner. Mel was the owner and the cook. He was this gruff guy. I always had this idea that I’d grow up to be Mel; I was probably six or seven, around the time I made the fateful pork chop dredge.

The first restaurant you mention working in is Hi Ricky Noodle Shop. Is that in Chicago?

It was a small chain, there were three of them. That was a marvelous experience. It was probably in ‘96 or ‘97 when it first opened; they were one of Chicago magazine’s best new restaurants. They opened at 1852 West North; I think it’s still a noodle shop. Then we opened one at 3730 North Southport; that’s when I joined the company.

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What kind of food was it?

A southeast Asian noodle shop. We did Thai and Vietnamese, they were the main focus. We did Indonesian, Malaysian, Burmese, some Cantonese. It would be unusual if it was opened today. We were doing pho before it was cool. We tried banh mi but they sort of flopped; we were way ahead of our time there.

Did you come to Chicago for that job?

No, I came to Chicago with Mark, my partner, who I met, and he was like, well, I’m moving to Chicago. Well, fuck. A few months later I moved up here.

In Bloomington I’d risen to chef in a restaurant called Chapman’s. This was in ‘92, probably, and I got my first James Beard award nomination back then. I had no idea what it was; I got this letter and an invitation to New York, and I was just, like… I had no idea what it was. So I didn’t do anything about it.

When I moved to Chicago I had this idea that maybe I’d go work for Charlie Trotter. I really liked what Jean Banchet was doing at Le Francais, at the time one of the best restaurants in the country, but it didn’t seem feasible to commute to Wheeling.

I had a pretty impressive resume for someone my age, I thought…

The Beard nomination.

But I didn’t know what it was, so I didn’t even put it on my resume.

I didn’t know that you’re supposed to go to someone like Charlie Trotter and offer to stage and whatnot. I couldn’t have afforded to anyway; I had student loans and all of that. I couldn’t get a culinary job that I wanted when I first moved to town. So I moved to the front of the house. Hi Ricky liked the fact that I had a culinary background.

Paul Fehribach with Crawfish Etouffee a la Breaux Bridge, circa 1940, at Big Jones in 2012. Photo: Phil Velasquez

Was this when you started to read about Lowcountry cuisine?

I started reading about Lowcountry cooking when I started at Schubas in 2002. I thought after Hi Ricky that I wanted to do my own restaurant, and Southern food wasn’t even on my radar, even though I liked it and was interested in it personally. But I still hadn’t thought of opening anything Southern.

But this was in 2002, and the economy was tanking, so I got cold feet. I thought I’d take one more job. I went to Schubas, and it turned out to be a good primer for me. They gave me much more freedom than most places would give to run their food service. I worked for them for four and a half or five years, and took it as far as I could. That was a great experience, too, being there with the music venue was phenomenal. I learned how to run big brunch numbers successfully.

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When I started, the Harmony Grill, their restaurant side, had what they called “regional American comfort food.” Comfort food for me is such a weird… I mean, comfort food exists, but I think to define comfort food as certain American dishes is kind of… for me, pad Thai is comfort food. Just because that’s chicken pot pie doesn’t mean it’s comfort food. You can’t brand it. I tend to define that more as American country cooking when you talk about the dishes we think of as comfort food. Stuff that’s rooted in our old farmhouse cuisine.

Harmony Grill was doing that thing, but the music venue was known for insurgent country and rockabilly, and they had a bit of an identity crisis on the restaurant side. The brunch was popular, but I tried to give it a bit more focus. Because of the interest I had in New Orleans, I took the brunch in that direction a bit, and started to focus on that heat belt—the Southwest and the Deep South as the basis of the menus there.

That was when I started to read about Lowcountry cooking. You have these people like John Martin Taylor, who was thinking about Lowcountry cooking in a way no one had ever thought about before. He was specifying Carolina rice, Carolina heirloom grits, back in the ’90s. He was like, what are we doing cooking this historic, significant and important cuisine with Quaker grits, which are made in Minnesota from corn that never touched Southern soil? Which were very valid questions.

He was maybe the first cook that started to ask those questions. This was around the same time that Glenn Roberts was asking the same questions, and eventually went off and met this guy, David Shields, and one by one, resuscitated these disappearing Southern staples and brought them back.

And Anson Mills, the South Carolina company working to specializing in organic heirloom grains. It seems like they’re really driving it.

They work with John Coykendall, who’s probably the most iconic seed saver of Tennessee, and Bill Best, who’s probably the most iconic seed saver of Eastern Kentucky. These are guys who, in their local and regional communities, are famous as seed savers.

That’s one of the things about Appalachia—maybe it’s the remoteness, maybe it’s its distrust of strangers, but they’ve held on to these things, to where seed savers are like sages in their communities. Anson Mills, with these guys and David Shields’s research, were able to tap into the network of the underground economy, moonshiners and bootleggers. Because they were part of the underground economy, they were using the same seed in their families for generations. If you were a farmer in the official American economy, your bank or insurance company long ago pushed you into modern hybrids and GMO crops. But these guys were living completely outside of that economy.

So they’ve been able to tap into these genetic resources. This year we got Huguenot black pilau oats, a 17th century oat that Huguenots brought with them from southern France when they settled in the Lowcountry. These oats have a very thin, papery hull, so that you don’t need to hull them; you can cook the whole grain, which is healthier, and you get more big, beautiful grass flavor. Whereas with standard oats, you have to polish the grain, take all the hull off, and then you can either roll them or cut them, and you have to stir them and stir them to get sort of a creamy texture. But it’s more gloppy. These oats make something like a beautiful arborio risotto. It’s incredible.

Bringing food out of history seems difficult. It reminds me of… you probably know this debate from music school, about how period music should be played, like, do you have to use period instruments? How do you approach that process—say, you find a receipt from an old cookbook that presumes techniques that a cook long ago had.

Sometimes I give it a lot of thought; sometimes I don’t, it depends on what I’m trying to do. The most important thing for me is to get ingredients that I think are going to speak to that. There’s a recipe in The Big Jones Cookbook called Antebellum Rice Waffles. If you’re going to get your rice waffle to come out tasting like an antebellum rice waffle, then you need a particular kind of waffle iron, but you need Carolina gold rice flour. You can use any other rice flour and get a waffle, but Carolina gold rice has such a distinctive taste. And the flour has such a distinctive taste and texture that you have to use Carolina gold rice.

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Tastes change and tastes are cultural; the most important thing is to make it taste good. But I often wonder if it tastes like it would have been. It’s important that your eggs come from a pasture, or that your chickens are raised outside, because that’s what chickens were back then. When we make a preparation that involves dairy, we have Jersey cows, which have been around since the 17th century. They’re unpastured and only eat grass and silage. I think that’s an authentic taste and that takes us a long way.

But you say in the book that you use modern techniques. What do you mean by that?

Southern food is maybe the original American fusion cuisine. It’s always evolving. You have Mexican restaurants in the most remote Appalachian villages now. You have Vietnamese restaurants opening in little Cajun towns in south Louisiana. Those immigrants are now putting their mark on Southern cuisine. I think of Southern food as always evolving—we’re not in the South, so we can’t really be the ones who are pushing the envelope on the evolution of Southern cuisine. But when we see things like that, we definitely interpret it.

But even if we make a 19th century receipt from an old cookbook, in reality we can’t present it the way they presented it back then; plated restaurant meals didn’t exist. If you found yourself in a restaurant, service would have been family-style. All of these old receipts will explain how to make a big casserole, or a big bowl, or a big pan. You have to take that and separate it into its components or portions, and maybe apply a different technique, all of which was developed in the 20th century, to take it from there to a plated meal in a 21st century restaurant. Then the presentation is going to be modern.

You mention in the book how you were influenced by Edna Lewis, the granddaughter of an emancipated slave who became a celebrated chef in New York for her Southern cuisine. You literally had diners tell you about her.

Yeah, it was a couple there in the first few weeks we were open. They asked me if I’d ever read any Edna Lewis, and I said, no. I ordered her second book, The Taste of Country Cooking, and the one she did with Scott Peacock.

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So I went and read The Taste of Country Cooking, and I was just absolutely blown away by the aesthetic of it. It’s just so… human, I guess, almost poetic in the prose. But maybe the most important thing I took from it then was that, here was a famous chef, who had never given up her sense of taste to any of the vulgarities or vanities of modern cuisine at the time, the ’70s.

More importantly than that is the sense that, if you have the right ingredients, and you have the right taste from these ingredients, then it’s okay for a pot of peas to be a pot of peas, or a chocolate souffle to be a chocolate souffle. She has a great deal of confidence in that simplicity. It takes more than ingredients; it takes technique.

She said to hell with all that stuff; good food is good food, and flavor is flavor. I was able to let go of those false ambitions to do something else with Southern food. It freed me to focus more on finding ingredients that really reflected the South and, then, preparing them in a way that would just let the ingredients speak. That way, I thought you would get the most true interpretation of Southern cooking that we could offer in Chicago.

Reading your book, and reading a bit about Edna Lewis, what people seem to say about her cooking is that it’s very simple and very traditional, but also very sophisticated. How does that work?

Her technique is masterful, whatever recipe she’s doing. That’s important. If I’m reading the book, she can tell all these nice stories about seasons and the farm, and the kitchen, hanging the liver from the tree limb in the breeze to dry for three days before you use it to make liver pudding. But if you don’t have the technique, all of these other stories and the supporting prose becomes quaint rather than meaningful.

One of the recipes that I love pulling out is a dish of creamed scallions, which blew my mind. I was like, who the hell would have ever thought of that? But it’s delicious. You cream every other vegetable; I love onions, so why not make creamed scallions? She talks about why she loves them—because when you have new growth in the spring, it’s the same time the onions come up, the grass comes anew, it’s the rainiest part of the year in the Virginia piedmont, and southern Indiana, where I’m from. You get all this new growth; the cows are eating the lushest pasture available and they make the most delicious cream that they’ll make all year. It really gives you a sense of cooking in the moment, cooking in the season, and cooking for effect that is, still, compared to any cookbook I’ve read before or since, I don’t think that anyone else quite captures the sophistication of seasonal cooking as she presents it.

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One of my favorite parts of the book is having a revelation about how the food industry works from her jelly roll. That modest treat, described in the book, is sort of a turning point for you.

I realized that a lot of things that are maybe traditional and Southern food, and American cuisine in general, is underappreciated. Southern cooking is coming into its own, but American country cooking I don’t think has yet. You see it a lot. These things we know now as junk food, like white trash food, were formerly these very nice things that you would make at home. It got co-opted by industry, and turned into things that barely resemble what they were originally. Roux icing is one. Such a wonderful cake icing. But once you could just whip cream cheese with sugar, why bother? Well, there are a lot of reasons to bother. I love cream cheese icing, but there are some things that roux icing is better for—it’s more subtle, it’s a finer texture. If you’re looking to do something truly elegant, you use a roux icing, but nobody does anymore, because you just make a cream cheese icing.

Where that hit home for me was being a child in the ’80s, and eating industrial pimento cheese. It was horrible. I still have memories of it being one of the worst things I’ve ever eaten. So to read a chef talking about how it was once a delicacy was a shock.

Pimento cheese is funny, because it kind of started as an industrial product, then became a homemade product, then became an industrial product, and now it’s going back to being a homemade product.

I found a really great article by some guy from Charleston, the name escapes me, but he had an extensive interview with John T. Edge about it, he did a lot of history on it. I read it too late to get it into my history of it. It started as this thing that was promoted by the Boston Cooking School. They had this idea that a recently developed Neufchatel cheese was very wholesome and pure because it was white; this was supposed to be science. But they were correct to say that pimentos were more wholesome than your standard-issue green bell peppers. It’s true—you let a pepper ripen, and you get a lot more vitamin A and C.

So they created this pimento cheese thing as a dainty way to get your wholesome dairy and vegetable on your very pure and wholesome white bread; it became this thing in tea rooms in the North, ladies’ lunches and whatnot. And eventually became Kraft Foods’ first processed cheese food in a jar.

But somehow in the South, during the Depression, people started making it themselves. It kind of became a Southern thing, a thing that moms and aunts and grandmas made. It became family. Those are the most powerful connections there are.

Industry sensed something, and then they make it a mass-produced product, and that’s what you and I ended up eating. But in the last 10 years or so, Southern chefs are taking it back. One by one we have to find these foods and take them back. [David Shields] calls it “rebooting a cuisine.”

I think American country cooking, more than anything nowadays, needs to be rescued from industry, and bad bars and grills, and their horrible pot roasts, and their macaroni and cheese abominations. Like beef stew. Everyone thinks that’s some garbage in a can. Shepherd’s pie—does anyone make a good one? It’s supposed to be mutton, but everyone uses beef over here. 

My next restaurant, I might just cook beef stew. And show everyone why anyone cared about beef stew in the first place.

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