I grew up with the total redneck experience: out every weekend on my four-wheeler on the farm, shooting snakes with a .22 pistol. Actually, it was probably more of a tempered redneck childhood. I grew up in Yazoo city, Central Mississippi, on the edge of the Delta. I lived on a hill that looked out over long stretches of flat land and cotton farms, and after my parents divorced, my dad remarried into a family of land-owning cotton framers. So I spent a lot of time on the farm doing whatever was needed.
I was a latchkey kid. I grew up with a lot of organic, biodiverse food, but I had no idea of its significance. It was in the kitchen alongside the fastest, most processed food imaginable. As hunters we would hunt and fill the freezer with venison for a year, and we grew our own tomatoes and corn, and black-eyed peas. But there’d also be a box of cupcake mix right next to all of that. I never knew unpasteurised cheese until I left home.
There’s a lot of that contrast in my cooking right now – I love to the nth degree a play on lowbrow and highbrow. You can challenge the guest. We have a wedge salad at The Lockhart, which is a simple wedge of lettuce with a house made ranch dressing, bacon bits, egg and chives. It couldn’t be more lowbrow, but we approach it from an artisanal level. Some people say it’s bland and they don’t get it, but we get Americans here on the verge of tears, just because they have access to this kind of food. And ultimately, food is about memory and emotion.
I’ve discovered a lot of parallels with Southern and contemporary British cooking, with the nose to tail philosophy and also, right now that kind of wartime sensibility – you go out to eat, and tomorrow could see the very last paycheck
When I was growing up I went to a private academy at a school that was 99.9% segregated. In fact, I remember our first black student, when I was in seventh or eighth grade, and it was a real big deal in a town of 11,000 people. It was surreal. From the moment I realised who I was, I knew that this was not going to be the place that I set my roots.
My reality as a teenager was like one long scene from the movie Dazed and Confused. At weekends, to subvert society, we’d do what’s called “riding around” – we’d hop in a car and burn gas, going in a loop around the town. We’d go to the first landing on the levee and start a bonfire. If we were lucky then someone would have stolen a crate from the back of the SuperValu, or we would have got our uncles or cousins to buy us beer. Actually, thinking about it, I guess my past is more redneck than I’m prepared to admit.
Musically, I was listening to a lot of Neil Young, and classic rock, lots of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. That whole classic American rock thing was going on for me. I grew up on a healthy dose of country music as well. Gospel too – I went to a Southern Baptist church twice a week, and was very active in youth groups. I went to Jesus Camp!
From the earliest age I can remember, I was travelling to visit my mother. She lived in Ohio and Michigan and also Atlanta, so I got to know that part of the South very well. I always had a love of the spirit of travel. It was always appealing. I never in my life said I want to live here or go here, I just always waited for the opportunities.
The two restaurants I’d recommend back in New York City right now are Franny’s, which is lowbrow, serving pizza in Brooklyn, and Per Se, which is still the finest restaurant in the city.
If was taking someone back to the South today, purely to experience the food, I’d take them to Ajax Diner in Oxford, Mississippi. It’s a soul food joint, and they serve everything from burgers to meatloaf, barbecue sandwiches, Po-Boys and bourbon pecan pie. The definition of soul food to me is something that feels like home. It’s about simply prepared vegetables and time honoured techniques and recipes. A lot of those ingredients, like collard greens and okra, come from African American culture. That’s the heritage, but there are also so many other elements – from Irish to Acadian (or Cajun) and French. But ultimately, this is an African cuisine.
When I first got to London, it was the first time I felt really homesick. It wasn’t the distance, it was the sense of difference. There’s a strong element of nostalgia with a lot of cooking right now. And I’ve discovered a lot of parallels with Southern and contemporary British cooking, with the nose to tail philosophy and also, right now that kind of wartime sensibility – you go out to eat, and tomorrow could see the very last paycheck. There’s also something of a shared aesthetic with antebellum America.
Everything starts with pork. Our menu is riddled with it. My main goal here is to make delicious food, and that’s what makes it really delicious to me. If I know I can make a dish better by putting pork in it, it’s almost dishonest not to put it in there. As they say in the South: “Praise the lord!”
When I walked through the door for the first time, the servers had white shirts with red bow ties. It made me want to punch them
When The Lockhart first opened, before I was here, it was a different concept. It was Tex Mex. I came on board, and binned it. The food was being done by a British chef, who had spent a very small amount of time in America. With every respect, it was like me trying to cook Thai food without having lived in Thailand. I changed things around. It’s not about a heavy theme. When I walked through the door for the first time, the servers had white shirts with red bow ties. It made me want to punch them. What era was that from? Now it’s just about nice chambray, nice jeans. Blue is a thing. I just want our people to look nice.
The crowd that came to my restaurant in Brooklyn was more diverse. In London, I get a sense that only foodies travel outside of their own neighbourhood. Although I see that changing.
There are some things that the British won’t quite get on board with. We have a sandwich at lunch, which is based on, via memory and research, a carbon copy of the muffuletta from New Orleans. It’s an Italian American sandwich, made with a big loaf, sometimes containing olives. Ours is focaccia with sesame seeds, filled with provolone, olive salad and three types of cured meats. The salad has pickles, capers and two kinds of olive. It hasn’t taken off like I wanted it to, but I am not surprised. There is a cultural phenomenon right now in which American cuisine is seen as a kind of food challenge – every meal is about sitting down to the biggest portions you have ever eaten. The challenge isn’t to enjoy, it’s to eat it all. That’s not why we built this sandwich, it’s because there is a story behind it, and it’s f––king tasty. It hasn’t quite taken off here for one simple reason – I wholeheartedly believe that English people don’t like to eat with their hands. C
The Lockhart, 22-24 Seymour Place, London W1
020-3011 5400; lockhartlondon.com