Tag Archives: Billy Reid Shindig

Friends of the Cafe | Chef Cheetie Kumar | Conversion

 I have often confessed that my least favorite ethnic cuisine is Indian — Asian Indian (curse you, Christopher Columbus). This bias is borne by an aversion to the texture of much Indian food served in American restaurants, which all too often tastes and looks like baby food to my eye and palate. Also, and probably most importantly, since the 1980s I have often been dragged to Indian restaurants by people I didn’t particularly like. Personal and cultural prejudices are often odd things to pinpoint.

Having once again made my confession, I confess further that I have always enjoyed the blends of spices and ingredients of Indian cuisine. I vividly remember a vendor distributing samples of her Indian foods on the grounds of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1983; I hypnotically followed her back to her tent to savor more.

But, then, people and mediocrity muddled my perceptions.

A couple of years ago, Chef Asha Gomez and fabulous food inspirations from her birthplace in southern India and her adopted home of the American South made me once again and seriously rethink my reaction to Indian cuisine. This revelation came, not surprisingly, at a Friends of the Café event at the Alabama Chanin factory in Florence – the source of many of my recent food-related revelations (www.alabamachanin.com).

More recently, I have been reading Kevin Alexander’s new book, Burn the Ice: The American Culinary Revolution and Its End (Penguin Press, 2019), and one of my favorite threads in this wonderfully readable narrative is the story of Anjan and Emily Mitra and the evolution of their San Francisco restaurant DOSA and beyond (www.dosasf.com). Their effort to fight the stereotypes of Indian food with authentic and heartfelt cuisine makes me long for what I have obviously been missing.

Now, last week, Chef Cheetie Kumar – born in India, filtered through the Bronx, and the chef/owner of Raleigh’s Garland (www.garlandraleigh.com) — sealed the deal for me with an enthusiastically complex five-course meal at the most recent Friends of the Café dinner in Florence. My hesitation about authentic Indian cuisine has mostly been eradicated as of last week. Kumar’s Florence menu was not exclusively Indian, but the Indian details and techniques were a compelling presence throughout the evening.

I am being converted to a finer appreciation of Indian cuisine.

The August edition of the Friends of the Café events tends to be particularly frenetic since it occurs as a sort of preamble to fashion designer Billy Reid’s “Shindig,” a weekend of music, food, and fashion throughout the Shoals community.

The Friends of the Café events are always fund-raisers, often for Southern Foodways Alliance. John Paul White (www.johnpaulwhite.com), a talented musician on the Shoals-based Single Lock Records roster (www.singlelock.com), performed soulfully and authentically before and after the meal. The loquacious Eric Solomon of European Cellars, who curated the wines with Chef Kumar, spoke often and at length about his pairings.

Chef Kumar, who did not appear until after the memorable five-course meal was complete, was the star of the evening. Her dishes were complex but not complicated, beginning with the three passed appetizers that circulated through the café and designer’s show room as the guests assembled. Puffy profiteroles with hot honey and a smoked fish dip with pickled shallot on rye toast were among the appetizers, but I kept leaning in for a bite of the curry leaf polenta with spicy tomato chutney.

When the diners were seated, the diversity of flavor profiles continued to blend and surprise. At my table were Kelly Fields, the James Beard Award-winning Outstanding Pastry Chef of 2019, and her thoughtful sous chef from Willa Jean, a great place I discovered a couple of years ago in New Orleans (www.willajean.com). They were in town to prepare a course for a meal at one of Muscle Shoals’ legendary sound studios on Saturday night of Shindig. It was enlightening to eavesdrop on my tablemates’ expert analyses of each dish as it was presented.

The first seated course was a watermelon and peanut chaat followed by coconut-poached royal red shrimp, creamed corn and tapioca pudding, with Bengali five spice. The third course consisted of a memorable Punjabi grilled summer squash casserole with soft paneer cheese and a fragrant roasted tomato vinaigrette. I think that third dish was my favorite in an evening full of lovely tastes – mainly for the inventive, flavorful, and unexpected use of the summer squash.

The meaty fourth course was a lemongrass summer brisket – big chunks of brisket with fingerling potatoes and pickled green tomatoes in a fresh, steamy, and fragrant broth. Finally, the refreshing dessert course was buttermilk cardamom panna cotta with peaches, olive oil granita, pickled blueberries, meringue, and almonds.

Kumar, a self-taught chef, is also the guitarist for the rock band, Birds of Avalon. I haven’t heard Birds of Avalon yet, but I will attest to Cheetie Kumar’s rock stardom in the kitchen. The meal she presented was thoughtful and imaginative, with diverse and balanced ingredients. It was a meal that will be remembered.

The Friends of the Café dinner series continues to provide an enlightening food education and the introduction to a splendid array of food artists and artisans – both in the kitchen and as fellow guests at the table.

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Sustenance

Sustenance does not come only from food and drink. In my own food memory, I am sustained by vivid recall of meals I had, with whom I had them, the service and the conversation and the ambience of the room; sometimes, though, when I remember such an event, I have only a vague recall of what I actually ate – only that the meal itself was an indispensable part of the memorable event.

Natalie Chanin’s “Friends of the Café” dinners at her Alabama Chanin factory in Florence (www.alabamachanin.com) provide many levels of sustenance – only a part of which comes from the food and drink and the amazing chefs that create them.

My most recent Florence dinner was helmed by Asha Gomez, a native of India who has been in the United States for several decades and who has been creating food memories in Atlanta for most of the past ten years.

The Gomez “Friends of the Café” dinner on a Thursday in August anticipated the beginning of Billy Reid’s annual “Shindig” weekend. Reid, the other internationally acclaimed fashion designer based in Florence (www.billyreid.com), hosts a late summer event featuring his clothing line, concerts and screenings, and chefs and meals in various venues that create a “go to” weekend for arts, fashion, food, camaraderie, and innovation in the Shoals.

Alabama Chanin’s pre-Shindig dinner is always sold out and includes the regulars who travel from near and far for her dinner as well as fashion, food, and entertainment professionals in town for Shindig.

The sustenance comes from being in a place where forward-thinking Southerners and others are gathered together and one realizes that – despite the headlines and political turmoil and despite the international joke that Washington, D.C. has become – we are not alone.

The sustenance comes from the “Friends” events’ long-standing relationship with Southern Foodways Alliance (www.southernfoodways.org), which is the beneficiary of proceeds from most of the dinners. John T. Edge, Director of SFA, is a regular attendee at the dinners and his passionate introduction to the recent meal and to Asha Gomez was a masterful and positive statement on current events, a response to the “immigrant” issue as exemplified by Gomez, and a positive evocation of the forward-thinking and amalgamated South “just over the horizon – always just over the horizon.”

Gomez’s book on cooking, My Two Souths: Blending the Flavors of India into a Southern Kitchen (Running Press, 2016), is an honestly detailed journey into her life and how her two souths, southern India and the American South, have created the sensibility of her aesthetic and cuisine. In her opening comments preceding the dinner, she balked at the word “fusion” – calling it “the other f-word.” Her food is personal, evolving from her roots in Kerala, India, and ever-expanding with the discovery of new foodways, new ingredients, and the commonalities contained therein. For Gomez, Southern fried chicken was nothing new; she brought her own strong tradition of fried chicken from Kerala.

Gomez claims both Southern India and the Southern U.S. as “home” and her food is a reflection and immersion into the rich compatibility of those shared homes, shared and unique flavorings, and Gomez’s personal interpretation of all of it.

Gomez understands why someone like me might be skeptical about Indian cuisine. I have been known to say that it is my least favorite of the international cuisines readily available in the States. I like the taste profile, the ingredients, and the spices of Indian cuisine well enough but have never been enchanted with its presentation in many Indian restaurants I have tried – usually at the urging of more enthusiastic friends. Gomez knows that the cuisine of her homeland is not represented by “the $4.99 buffets” and other iterations common to the American landscape and seeks to exalt it in a more authentically representative manner.

Sustenance comes in meeting new friends and getting better acquainted with others. My friend Cindy and I were seated at a table full of food professionals in town for Shindig. I was seated next to John T. Edge and across from Vanessa and Rick, a lovely Florence couple, and the conversation was lively and far-reaching. “I hear you’re in town to sign your 300th book,” I said to Edge. “Only 250, I think,” he blithely replied (actually, it’s over a dozen). John T. Edge’s latest, The Potlikker Papers (Penguin Press, 2017), is billed as “A Food History of the Modern South.”

Cindy was sitting beside a group of pastry chefs and other food professionals from New Orleans and the hilarity was pretty much non-stop off to my right side.

The evening commenced with hearty passed hors d’oeuvres including black pepper and black salt spiced roasted cashews, fry bread with mint chutney and quick pickled carrots, and curry chicken samosa pockets. The featured beverage, the “Muscadine Vine,” was a combination of muscadine wine, vinho verde. Prosecco, lime, and mint which successfully tamed and enhanced the tricky sweetness of muscadine wine. 

A first course of Sunday Vegetable Stew featured chunky vegetables in a lovely coconut milk base. A Kerala Fish Curry with kichidi grits and tempered mustard oil was the second offering. The fish beautifully rested on a lush bed of perfectly seasoned and perfectly cooked grits and the sauce melded the flavors in a pleasing manner.

Beef Biryani was the third course, served family style. In My Two Souths, Gomez describes biryani as a “celebration dish” and describes the traveling biryani chefs of India as being similar to American barbecue pit masters. Her version for the recent dinner featured chunks of beef over rice with an intensely diverse panoply of spices and seasonings. Each course was accompanied by a complementary wine pairing.

After three very hearty and satisfying dishes, the undisputed star for the diners at my table seemed to be the dessert course. The Three Spice Carrot Cake arrived to a chorus of delighted responses and the first bite did not disappoint.

The sustenance of the evening came to fruition with the sustenance of the actual meal that brought us all together in a spirit of community and enlightenment. During Edge’s opening remarks about the Southern community being forged throughout the region by forward-thinking people of all stripes, Natalie Chanin quipped about it being found “in a former tee-shirt factory in the industrial section of Florence, Alabama.” She was right. The “Friends of the Café” events are forging that community three or four times a year at her factory and in events like Shindig.

I always leave these events with rejuvenated inspiration. I admit that I still have a somewhat wary relationship with Indian cuisine, but Asha Gomez has opened my mind and broadened my perspective. Indian restaurants may not become my first dining choice, but I will eagerly consume and find sustenance in the boundary-breaking cuisine of Asha Gomez.