Chef Joe Randall of Savannah, Georgia
March 19, 2013
Low Country and Southern Cooking
by Gerald Bartell
It is early evening, not midnight, in a Savannah kitchen, not a garden, good, evil or otherwise. Knives will be used to dice onions, not victims.
And whatever suspense the evening brings will ensue when the dozen or so student chefs gathered in the room see how the pork roast tastes when it’s taken out of the oven. But make no mistake; there is a mystery tale of sorts here.
The high, white toque that Chef Joe Randall wears as he stands behind a large counter means a master chef and teacher and master food detective is at work. Randall heads Savannah’s Joe Randall Cooking School, and much of what he teaches comes from years of sleuthing, so to speak, checking out tasty clues left by okra, tomatoes and Vidalia onions.
Although Randall started learning to cook more than 40 years ago in his native Harrisburg, Pa., he really got a focus on what he could bring to the table in 1978. Then a chef in Sacramento, Ca., Randall came across Creole Feast, a cookbook authored by Nathaniel Burton and Rudy Lombard.
“It was the first cook book I ever saw that had a Black chef on the cover”, Randall recalls. He subsequently met Lombard and a dozen of his friends, who shared with him their cooking tips and secrets. And, Randall took notice.
“I’d been making gumbo,” he says, but not like this. Randall wanted to find out not only what went into the soup but also where had the recipe come from.
And so began his investigation into Southern Low Country cooking. People didn’t know what Low Country food was and didn’t know its origins, he says. His case took him primarily to the Barrier Islands off the coast of North Carolina and to Sea Island off the coast of Georgia. Known as the Gullah, the Black population there had arrived in the 1800s from the Republic of Sierra Leone in West Africa. On the islands, Randall studied with its Black women cooks.
They were the rice eaters, Randall says, and they worked with salt pork and shrimp seafood stock. He said he watched the women making the stock by drying the shrimp shells, then boiling them. And he learned how they cooked crab rice, made deviled crab and shrimp and rice.
Today foodies and students come from all over the world to the cooking school on Waters Street to sample Randall’s Low Country cooking, and his southern dishes.
When you come down here, “I will put the South in your Mouth,” he said.