Celebrating Soul Food In America, One Bite At A Time

Food & Drink

In the world of soul food, few names resonate as deeply as Claude Booker. As a chef and the founder of Booker’s Soul Food Starters—a company dedicated to providing authentic soul food meal kits—he has made it his mission to celebrate the rich tapestry of flavors and traditions that define this beloved cuisine, and to give back.

Booker’s impact as a leading figure in the soul food scene also transcends the kitchen. “Chef Booker has consistently worked to uplift the Black community,” Akin Affrica, president of Soul Republic United Restaurants, told me in an interview. “Over the course of two decades, his commitment to supporting Black businesses has been unwavering, providing vital exposure and opportunities for entrepreneurs in the industry.”

For Booker, soul food is more than just a cuisine—it is a gateway to understanding the diverse cultural influences that make America’s culinary landscape so vibrant. Through his travels and personal experiences, he has gained a profound understanding of the nuances that make soul food a culinary treasure.

Hailing from rural South Carolina, Booker’s upbringing laid the foundation for his love affair with soul food and an appreciation for the importance of fresh, locally sourced ingredients—the true roots of soul food. The community he grew up in relied on a deep connection to the land and the bountiful produce it offered.

From pecans and peanuts to watermelons and cantaloupes, each season brought an abundance of flavors that shaped Booker’s understanding of soul food—which he says is misunderstood in America and often viewed as unhealthy.

“If you look at the roots of soul food in the Antebellum South, it was a cuisine primarily based on seasonal vegetables and very little meats,” Booker told me in an interview. “The diet was closer to what we today align with being a vegetarian. Most often dietitians and nutritionists encourage us to eat dark leafy greens, sweet potatoes, legumes lean meats and fish—which are all key components of soul food.”

After graduating from high school, Booker went to culinary school. “I learned how to take those chef skills and use my family’s oral recipes that have been shared by word of mouth for years and add consistency,” he says. “As chefs we have an opportunity to share this wonderful cuisine with so many. I encourage my future culinary brethren to be a part of that journey.”

Another thing that expanded Booker’s culinary horizons: travel. “It’s so important to travel,” he says. “You get to see the world and make friends over some great soul food. You also get to share a bit of yourself.” From the vibrant streets of Harlem to the neighborhoods of New Orleans, Booker has always immersed himself in classic soul food destinations.

Combined, all of these experiences instilled in him a deep love for cooking and the transformative power of soul food, which is why he founded Soul Food Starters: to empower families with the tools and ingredients to recreate exceptional dishes at home, ensuring that the traditional steps and authentic flavors are preserved.

When it comes to exceptional soul food scenes, Booker’s heart lies in the South, particularly in the Carolinas and Georgia. The abundance of fresh ingredients, such as okra, peaches, snap peas and pork—combined with the region’s historical significance—makes it a soul food haven.

Booker’s Soul Food Starters also goes beyond food itself. Through partnerships with organizations like the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity State of Georgia STEM Program, the company actively promotes STEM education and provides resources to uplift young minds. The company also has a Black Education Fund that supports Black youth with financial resources and opportunities to ensure that everyone receives a quality education.

“His holistic approach to advancing soul food encompasses economic empowerment and educational advancement, leaving a lasting legacy for generations to come,” says Affrica.

Booker’s culinary adventures have led him to some exceptional soul food destinations across the United States, where he has discovered that soul food not only transcends geographical boundaries but also plays a crucial role in preserving cultural heritage and promoting inclusivity in the culinary world. “It is so important. It is the link that connects Black folks regardless of age and geography,” says Booker. “I cannot wait for the time when everyone gets to see why we love it so much.”

Here, check out a few of Booker’s favorite soul food restaurants across the country.

Angie’s Soul Cafe – Cleveland, Ohio

Whenever Booker craves soul food without the hassle of cooking, Angie’s Soul Cafe is his go-to spot. “Their smothered pork chops are a standout dish that never disappoints,” he says.

B&K SmokeHouse – Columbus, Ohio

“Great BBQ and soul food is a winning combination every day of the week, and that is what B&K delivers all the time,” says Booker. “My favorite—the turkey ribs.”

Dooky Chase’s – New Orleans

Dooky Chase opened in 1941 as a sandwich shop; after the founder’s son Edgar Dooky Chase, Jr. married Leah Lange Chase (later known as the Queen of Creole Cuisine), this would become one of the first African American fine dining restaurants in the country, as well as a hot bed of civil rights. In the 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr. would meet local leaders here for strategy sessions. This iconic establishment holds a special place in Booker’s heart, since he admires how the family has continued to preserve Ms. Chase’s legacy while serving delicious soul food. “The food is just as good as it always was. I love the chicken, and the gumbo is righteous,” he says.

The Busy Bee Cafe – Atlanta, Georgia

“Busy Bee Cafe is scratch cooking at its finest. I was blessed to live in Atlanta for about 10 years, and Busy Bee Cafe is one of the reasons I enjoyed living in the ATL,” says Booker. “They are also a 2022 James Beard Classics Winner. You don’t get better than that.”

This Is It – Atlanta, Georgia

“When I want to throw down and I’m in the ATL, I don’t miss the opportunity to get over to This Is It,” says Booker. “The good news is there are several to choose from, and they are consistently good. I love those amazing rib tips.”

Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles – Los Angeles

“I have never had a bad experience at Roscoe’s,” says Booker. “Oftentimes the hype never matches the experience, but Roscoe always delivers on their brand promise of great chicken and awesome waffles.”

Mert’s Heart and Soul – Charlotte, North Carolina

“I love this restaurant because the food is wonderful, and it has such a diverse customer base,” says Booker. “Mert’s is just a fun dining experience with great food. My favorites here are their fried catfish and the soul rolls.”

Jacob Restaurant – Harlem, New York

“The first time I strolled into Jacob’s, I stared with my mouth open for 30 seconds. I looked around and said ‘Alright now, amazing selection of soul food.’ The salad bar was also amazing,” says Booker.

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