Ode to a Southern Chef

Eat. Drink. Repeat. Chef James Shields. If you have seen any of my other books you will know that chefs light me up, so I was happy to find another chef passionate about his food. He is left-handed. The experts say left-handed people are artists. It shows in his food. He is a culinary artist of the southern kind and beyond.

Chef James is a kind, bear of a man with a deep baritone voice and life shining out of his eyes. His whole disposition says, “I can make good southern food and then some.” He can. He can fry a chicken like nobody’s business and when we told him he is now officially our chicken guy, he said, “Well, then I will have to bring out my guitar and I will be your guitar guy too.” A man of many talents.

It would be a mistake to think that he only cooks southern food and that he only fries and smokes. He makes an incredibly beautiful, refined dessert. Just look at the brownies. It is cookbook front page worthy, and it inspired me to write.

Chef James has been cooking for twenty years. Thirty-six years when you count the years he cooked for his family as a young man. He is a self-taught chef that went to the culinary school of life. His startup story is verbatim that of my son Craig’s. Craig started out washing dishes in a Chinese restaurant, becoming a delivery driver, and getting promoted to cooking on the wok and through many years of struggles he became the executive chef in a prominent restaurant. This too, is Chef James’ exact story. I nearly fell off my dining chair!

After some conversation with Chef James, I found out the reason why he is so good with chicken. He would buy chickens and practice to debone them, then stuff them and put them back together so that they looked once more like a whole chicken. This is culinary art.

I am excited, and I look forward to do a photoshoot with him because simple southern food is made great by him and I would love to see the process. Well…simple?

I am a naturalized American that knows nothing about southern cuisine because I lean more towards cooking exotic food. As soon as I started researching the recipes, I learned that southern food is not as simple as I thought. It is intricate and unique, yet it is comfort food at its finest. The chef makes the dishes interesting with the right use of spices. The grits and grits cakes are to die for, and his desserts are sublime. Although the food appears to be straight forward, the minute you take your first bite you can taste that something is different. The flavors are complex and the ingredient they work with the most is love. It is this ingredient that takes you beyond the first bite, wanting to keep returning for more.

Chef James and I share a passion for food and books. This leads to interesting conversations and I just want to keep on talking with him every time I see him. It was bad for him that because of COVID, he lost his job as a prominent chef in Wisconsin, but it was good for us that he found the job in our small town of London, Kentucky. We appreciate you chef. Thank you.

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