“Soul food, for me, is everything.”
So begins the first episode of “The Great Soul Food Cook-Off,” a new cooking competition on discovery+. In this six-episode series, eight Black chefs from around the country face off in challenges designed to highlight the past and present of soul food. The winner takes home $50,000 — and, of course, bragging rights.
The show is produced by Good Egg Entertainment, the company behind Food Network’s “Chopped,” and is overseen by the Oprah Winfrey Network.
The host is Southern chef and Food Network star Kardea Brown, who is joined each week by “Top Chef” alum Eric Adjepong and celebrated Harlem restaurateur Melba Wilson as judges. Other well-known Black culinarians who make appearances on the judging panel include Alexander Smalls and Kwame Onwuachi, both James Beard Award-winning chefs and authors. Michael W. Twitty, author of “The Cooking Gene,” serves as culinary historian and consultant for the series.
With half of the contestants residing in greater metro Atlanta, there’s plenty of reason for local residents to tune in to the hourlong premiere Nov. 20; new episodes will debut every Saturday through Dec. 18.
While none of these local chefs could spill the beans about the final outcome, they were happy to chat via Zoom about the journeys that brought them to this high-profile stage, and their excitement over a series that celebrates Black chefs and the roots of one of America’s oldest cuisines.
Sixteen years ago, Razia Sabour was working in Washington as a social worker. Marriage brought her to Atlanta, and motherhood prompted her to search for a career more conducive to family life. She saw a future in food trucks, but, as soon as her truck was ready to roll, things suddenly took a detour. Her husband secured a catering gig for her: feed 75 people on a set at Tyler Perry Studios — the next day.
“I told him, ‘I don’t know the first thing about catering!’” Sabour recounted.
“You have to. I already told them you can do it,” he replied.
Before the meal had ended, the talent manager had informed Sabour that they would be needing lunch and dinner for 75 people for the next five weeks. “I did it,” she said. “I fell into catering.”
In the 10 years since then, Sabour, 40, and her Fuller Foods have made a name as go-to caterer for Atlanta’s film and TV industry.
She is not new to TV cooking competitions, but views this one as unique. “I have been on (Food Network’s) ‘Cutthroat Kitchen,’ geared around making a fool of yourself,” Sabour said. “This show was presented to me as something deeper. It was about showcasing soul food. In the food world, soul food is looked at as the ugly girl. She’s not ugly at all. I wanted to showcase her, pretty on the plate, because soul food deserves that, as much as any other cuisine.”
While Sabour shares pride with fellow cast members in “showcasing our roots as Black people,” she also experienced a personal victory through her participation on the show. “I’m not a speed person,” she said. “It taught me quickly to learn to operate under pressure. I couldn’t quit. You have to put something on a plate.”
“Atlanta to the core” is how Jamarius Banks describes himself. His grandmother grew up in Summerhill, his mother in Decatur.
Banks, who resides in East Atlanta Village, has childhood memories of eating at Busy Bee Cafe, Paschal’s and Rib Shack on Auburn Avenue when his family wanted to sup on Southern fare.
After graduating from Ronald McNair High School in 2011, he attended the Art Institute of Atlanta. Now a private chef, he has flexed his culinary muscles on TV multiple times. In 2015, he served as sous chef to Ed Harris Jr. on “International Iron Chef,” where the latter was declared champion. Banks also was featured on “Beat Bobby Flay” in 2019 (his recipe for Creole shrimp and grits is published in Flay’s new cookbook bearing the show’s name). But, participating in “The Great Soul Food Cook-Off” held special meaning for him.
“It showcased my heritage,” said Banks, who turns 29 on Nov. 17. “As a young African American coming up in the industry, I would watch the Cooking Channel. There was not much African American presence on these shows. It’s just lately you are getting more African American chefs getting to showcase their talent.”
While he applies his French training to Southern cooking, such as when making bechamel sauce for mac and cheese, Banks said that, when it comes to soul food dishes, he doesn’t want to “get away from what I grew up eating.”
Yet, he doesn’t want to be pigeonholed. “I can be an African American chef and make really good French food,” he said.
Dorian Hunter, 47, has been on the culinary scene professionally for just five years, yet her victory on “MasterChef” Season 10 catapulted her into the national spotlight in 2019. Her win marked a couple of firsts in the show’s history: its first Black female winner and its oldest winner.
“It opened doors,” said Hunter, who lives in Cartersville. “It’s been life-changing, not only for me, but my whole family. I carry a lot of weight, being an older African American female trying to get into this African American space.”
Hunter said that participating in “The Great Soul Food Cook-Off” was so daunting that she went into therapy. “I struggle with confidence,” she admitted.
Her desire to participate in the series outweighed her fears. “People who cook like me, look like me, have gotten accolades … it shows off this beautiful thing we love to do, which is cook soul food, and different views on what soul food is. I wanted to be in a room to see what those differences are.”
Hunter described her approach to the cuisine as “elevated soul.”
“I try to make soul food beautiful, use the best ingredients I can, and show respect,” she said, “but I still want you to feel like you’re at your grandma’s house.”
While the winner will earn cred for tasty ways with soul food, Hunter eschews that label. “I cook anything. I’m not a one-trick pony,” she said.
When he enrolled in Georgia State University in 2007, Fred Fluellen planned to pursue a degree in real estate or finance. But, after he realized he wasn’t “a money guy,” Fluellen switched to a hospitality track and hasn’t looked back.
The 32-year-old Texas native began his culinary career at the now defunct Spice Market at the W Atlanta Midtown hotel. He has opened Steak ‘n Shake units around the country, managed Pappasito’s Cantina in Marietta and worked in food and beverage operations at various stadiums in Atlanta. Currently, he’s the chef-owner of catering company Fluversity.
Fluellen approaches cooking with an eye toward innovation. “Take it out of its traditional element,” he said, citing collard green egg rolls as an example of how he likes to “flip” a dish whose ingredients hail from a soul food pantry.
Better known as Chef Flu, he appeared on Food Network’s “Cooks vs. Cons” Season 2, Episode 3, in 2016 (and won the competition with his shrimp and grits), but he calls it an honor to be selected for a soul food-focused throwdown. “To be recognized out of the eight people — hey, I am part of this soul food movement. My food is now being showcased to the world,” he said.
And, he takes pride that Atlanta is well-represented, with half the cast of the show. “Atlanta — we’re the heart of soul food. One of us has to bring it home.”
“The Great Soul Food Cook-Off” premieres Nov. 20 on discovery+, with new episodes every Saturday through Dec. 18.