These rich food traditions often are what attract chefs from other parts of the country. At Louisville's Magnolia 601, Brooklyn-born Edward Lee seamlessly blends tradition with the flavors of his Korean heritage in dishes like crab cakes with green tomato kimchi and mango with red onion and daikon sprouts. But rather than corrupting tradition, Lee says such innovation moves it forward.
"I'm not a Southerner and I don't cook Southern food," he says. "I cook my food with a nod to Southern food and culture. I'm playing on their culture and history. I'm not making it better or worse. I'm just doing something different."
In North Carolina, New Jersey native Andrea Reusing projects memories of childhood trips to New York's Chinatown into whole fried local flounder and tea-cured local chicken. She plays on a Southern classic with Korean-style fried chicken wings that offer a brittle crunch and a sweet-spicy glaze. Country ham shows up in fried rice and field peas dot black sticky rice instead of hoppin' John.
"A lot of these Asian flavors are also Southern flavors," Reusing says. "Crunchy fried chicken, salty ham, a great whole fish. Peanuts. There are so many similarities. "
At his two Athens, Ga., restaurants, Acheson adds French, Italian, Spanish, even North African flavors to Georgia ingredients, with dishes like grilled octopus and purple cape beans, cioppino-style local seafood with stewed collards and roasted local chicken with red peppers and sesame. He even has kimchi creamed collard greens, a nod to the classic creamed spinach. Such interpretations, Acheson says, fit right into the South's history.
"Eighty percent of what we think of as Southern food is from slaves who were not indigenous," he says. "It's amazingly geographically different, inflected from so many parts of the world."