In the decade I spent working in restaurant kitchens, I rarely felt an emotional connection with the food I was cooking.
This feeling of distance from the food I encountered here in the United States began almost as soon as I arrived from Nigeria as a young college student. Very few dishes I ate growing up were reflected in the dining hall food served in my university, nor was there evidence of them in the recipes I fastidiously honed in culinary school after college, and in my first restaurant jobs in Baltimore. When I moved to Atlanta in 2006, Edna Lewis, the great American chef and cookbook author, had just passed. At the two restaurants where I worked, I started making Ms. Lewis’s recipes, and began seeing in my own two hands the food that transported me home.
Those of us who work in restaurant kitchens know the physical and emotional demands of the job. We also know the intense connections we make with certain dishes on the menu. Beyond making ends meet — beyond just surviving — what I most remember chasing were the moments when a dish would resonate with me. Most menu items needed to be executed as planned: precisely, and to the chef’s instruction. But Ms. Lewis’s recipes demanded working from feeling, faith and sensory cues, the way my mother and grandmother always had.
The two Atlanta restaurants I worked in, Restaurant Eugene and Watershed, featured farm-to-table, regional Southern cuisine. (Scott Peacock, the chef de cuisine at Watershed, was Ms. Lewis’s co-author on “The Gift of Southern Cooking.”) Ms. Lewis’s recipes punctuated the menus of both of those restaurants, serving as bold, playful metaphors for the happiness food can elicit. She possessed a faith in ingredients that deepen in flavor as they simmer, ingredients I knew well. Her Country Captain, a tomato-and-spice-stewed chicken, was reminiscent of the herbed chicken, rice and stew that my own mother served every Sunday of my childhood. Ms. Lewis’s yeast rolls, so brilliantly buttery and cloudlike they seemed to melt on your tongue, were another recipe I looked forward to prepping. Her techniques felt as if they were the missing component of my pastry education.
I remember Steven Satterfield, my chef at Watershed, teaching me how to make a caramel glaze for Ms. Lewis’s fresh apple cake, looking me over with curiosity as I made lab work of one of the steps. If I cooked the glaze too far, I thought, it would crystallize. My training urged me to use a thermometer. So many of the dishes I had made up to that point in my career felt as if they were the expression of some distant ideal — food I had never known growing up but sought to master from technique. A French pastry’s perfection drew on my science background, not my childhood memories.
But you don’t need a thermometer, my chef told me.
What was central to her recipes, he said, was being present and paying close attention — the very qualities that had resonated with me.
I bought a copy of “The Gift of Southern Cooking” only when I was leaving Atlanta, bound for new opportunities in New York. When I finally sat down to it, I saw myself in the recipes that she collected, the techniques she shared and her stories.
To me, home is more about connection than a physical place. We may have spent our whole lives traveling or, alternatively, never leaving the few square miles of a birthplace, but it’s our ties — to our memories, to one another — that inform what we think of as home. This recipe is part of my idea of home. Though it is inspired by Ms. Lewis’s buttermilk chess pie, it allowed me to bridge the gap between my two food worlds. Citrus and black pepper are additions I make to so many of my dishes — a little brightness, a little spice, a little sparkle. And jiggling the pie is an ode to Ms. Lewis, a way of following feeling and faith to know when the custard is just set.