by Christopher A. Daniel
When I initially sat to conduct my exclusive interview with the renowned Chef Todd Richards to develop a feature story for The Burton Wire, I was immediately impressed by his extraordinary use and understanding of food as a community connector. “I really want to do something that represents the neighborhood that I live in,” he told me during this year’s Atlanta Food and Wine Festival immediately following a weekend class he was instructing on grilling vegetables.
“Fried chicken is the most community-driven food in the world,” the former partner in Atlanta eateries The Shed at Glenwood and The Pig & the Pearl continues. “You cannot communicate if you don’t have something in common, and fried chicken is that thing that brings people together.”
Fast forward about a month-and- a-week after that conversation. Chef Richards, a multiple James Beard Foundation “Best Chef” Southeast semifinalist, former culinary master at numerous Ritz-Carlton Hotels and reigning executive chef at downtown Atlanta’s White Oak Kitchen and Cocktails, debuted his own concept restaurant after a year of planning and erection based around fried chicken, Richards’ Southern Fried, in the refurbished Krog Street Market in the Inman Park area. I was able to sit and enjoy my own intimate menu tasting the Wednesday following its Monday, July 11 grand opening along with my colleague, The Burton Wire’s founder/Editor-in- Chief Nsenga Burton.
Upon Chef Richards offering us seats at his 400-square- foot brick-and- mortar eatery, I immediately noticed how Richards’ Southern Fried possesses its own classic, diner-influenced-meets- theatrical ambiance: angelic marble countertops, platinum-colored steel parts and its sibling refined stools. The restaurant’s marquee, bolted parallel to the left of the kitchen and dining area, Chef Richards shares, is inspired by the Fox Theatre’s signage. “I wanted to show things in the best light and detail,” says the former contestant on the Food Network’s Iron Chef America. “I wanted a counter so that people could sit together.”
I insisted that Chef Richards, wearing a light gray chef jacket, and company select all of the menu items for us to sample (I’d been exchanging texts via Facebook Messenger and emails with various members of his staff forewarning me to be prepared to get my grub on). And boy, did we end up with a nice a la carte in front of us.
In the meantime, I quenched my thirst on a few rounds of strawberry rhubarb lemonade, a refreshing beverage with a quite satiating sour aftertaste. Four beverages in, I decided to turn that lemonade into a “Todd Richards,” Chef Richards’ equivalent to an Arnold Palmer, adding sweet tea into the mix. It was dope having various members of his diverse, 11-member team offer to refill the beverage consistently once the ice eclipsed the pink-toned liquid.
A man with immense knowledge, Chef Richards, a Chicago native and Five Diamond Restaurant Award recipient, dialogued and fellowshipped with us about a variety of subjects. We discussed our favorite works (cinema and literature) by legendary photographer Gordon Parks, his fascination with writers and (good) journalists’ abilities to articulate moments in time, his relationship with his father (who left right before we dined), his obsession with singer Phoebe Snow’s 1976 LP Second Childhood and several historic moments in the culinary industry. Bypassing us were a slew of customers of all ages and ethnicities, mirroring Richards’ Southern Fried’s team, stopping to get that helping of mouth-watering fried chicken.
Then, out came our family-styled meal. The container closest to me contained a classic leg and thigh (Nsenga and her soror in town for Alpha Kappa Alpha’s Boule festivities feasted on that because I’m not really a fan of dark meat). Further down was a four- piece classic wings (not them scrawny pieces of chicken but the well-fed pieces you can pull apart with multiple napkins on deck because it’s THAT good). I, on the other hand, planted my teeth firmly into that Richards’ hot (Chef Richards likes his cold) breast and wing, swimming in not even a small puddle of orange-tinted sauce zested up with garlic and paprika, giving the chicken a very clean (almost exotic) spicy aftertaste. That hit of high octane ghost pepper hot sauce mixed with that bourbon hot sauce though….is for the big boys! Throwing in a few cornbread muffins and pickle slices in each chicken box was a nice touch, too.
Side dishes are on point! The hot chicken macaroni & cheese includes nice chunks of the Richards’ hot decorated (and well-proportioned) with scallions and a creamy cheese sauce throughout the congealed concoction (have some water on deck though). The full-bodied jalapeno cream corn is loaded with fresh garden peppers. Thank goodness the consistency isn’t too watery and running like Jackie Joyner-Kersee!
Those hearty potato wedges (oh my goodness!) came out piping hot, made to order with a side of remoulade (damn!). Of course, I can never go wrong with cucumber, tomato and onion salad by itself (one of my favorite side dishes since childhood). The golden orange vegetable slaw, fermented in salt water, was served freshly drizzled with a light vinaigrette. Think of the vegetable medley as springtime in a cup. Between three people, we went home a nice helping of leftovers and full bellies…considering we were told to make some room for dessert.
Richards’ Southern Fried’s rice pudding is full of sliced peaches, peach puree and cream topped with pecans. Yet, it’s surprisingly not overwhelmingly sweet. Its distant relative, the strawberry rhubarb cobbler, is also not overpowered with sugar but does come with one hell of a crust. I highly suggest a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side. Pleasant as always, Chef Richards even ran to grab some coffee to pair with the desserts.
Clocking in close to two hours, the dining experience at Richards’ Southern Fried, at least for me, was a very savory, thought-provoking and welcoming time. It’s the type of establishment that could easy become something like Cheers (well, minus the booze). On the next visit, I intend on sinking my teeth into one of those fried chicken sandwiches smothered in pimento cheese and chow chow on the bun (rubs stomach and licks lips). Daily specials like the red beans & rice, fried catfish sandwich and the weekend chicken & waffles are on my to-do list as well (keep in mind my visit was on a Wednesday evening just before the dinner rush).
Richards’ Southern Fried, to quote Chef Richards, isn’t just another fried chicken joint. It’s an intimate space that invites everyone in for a good vibe and a spice of life. Give it a try; you’ll never look at fried chicken the same indeed.