Called to Cook
Richmond native Velma Johnson, owner of Mama J's restaurant, grew up in the city's Oregon Hill and Maymont neighborhoods, the eighth of 14 children. She served as a deputy sheriff for 17 years before trading her badge for a caterer's van in 1999.
I always enjoyed cooking. My mama had 14 kids, so we had to help with cooking. It was mandatory. We ate very well. My daddy was a cafeteria man. We grew up eating, believe it or not, filet mignon, cream-cheese-and-raisin-bread sandwiches, stuffed green peppers, shrimp Creole. He was one of the chefs for Life of Virginia insurance company, and we ate what was left from the executive dining room. My mother's staples were macaroni and cheese, yams and fried chicken — things we serve here.
The only catfish we had when we were kids was the fish my dad caught in the James River. We had to skin it. We raised chickens in the yard, too. A supermarket in Jackson Ward, on Sixth Street, gave away baby chicks every Easter. We raised them. We had to kill the chickens ourselves and pluck them. One of us would hold the chicken. Then we would put a broomstick down over the chicken's neck and step on it, and the head would come right off. Some of my sisters and brothers ate the chickens, but I didn't. They were our pets.
In my yearbook, it said I wanted to be a caterer. I used to mess around with it. Then, one day at the sheriff's department, I was working the midnight shift, and I said, "I can't do this." I turned in my resignation and went to the car dealership and bought a van. When I was going home, I said, "God, you have to send me a message because I don't know how I'm going to pay for this van." When I got home, I had a message from the superintendent of schools. He said he needed me to do a continental breakfast and a light lunch for three days for a workshop. That was my sign, and I never looked back. —as told to Tina Eshleman
Lee Gregory, head chef and partner in The Roosevelt restaurant in Church Hill, grew up in Rock Hill, S.C., but often visited his grandmother in St. George, an area in the southern part of the state that is said to consume more grits per capita than any place in the world.
Both sides of my family, my mom's side and dad's side, are small-town families. Every gathering revolved around food. Each of the families, too, were fairly big and fairly close-knit. I think that's where my appetite for cooking may have come from, especially from my mom's side of the family. They were 25 or 30 minutes from Charleston, so everything was Lowcountryish, rice and peas.
The biggest memory, by far, was boiled peanuts. My grandmother would go to a farm the day before or that morning, and you could buy a bushel of fresh peanuts with the dirt still on them, hose them off, put them in a giant pot and cook them all day with just water and salt. After they're tender, it's time to eat.
At 3 or 4 in the afternoon, we would sit down. We'd take them outside, strain them off, put them on a picnic table covered with newspaper and pick the peanuts out of the shells. It would be 15 pounds of boiled peanuts, just stacked, and everyone socializing around the picnic table. That's where we met, talked and caught up. That's where we told stories about each other.
Those events — that's where a lot of the stuff we do at The Roosevelt comes from. You have places in town that do comfort food, and places that do a Cajun/Creole spin. We're trying to do a rice-and-peas, Lowcountryish style of food. It drifts a little bit away from it. It's definitely more technique-driven and has a modern spin, but the main idea is to kind of bring back for me personally what I knew of food growing up. —as told to Tina Eshleman
Black Sheep chef/owner Kevin Roberts grew up in Roanoke, and his childhood memories of food revolve around holidays visiting grandparents in rural Southwest Virginia. He also draws inspiration from the chefs he's worked with, including Frank Brigsten, a Paul Prudhomme protégé in New Orleans, and Richmonders Jimmy Sneed and Dale Reitzer.
On Christmas Eve, we'd visit my mother's side of the family. They lived way out near Catawba Mountain. There would be holiday ham, a big roast turkey and every side imaginable: corn pudding, green-bean casserole, macaroni and cheese, cranberry relish. That would all be on the kitchen table.
Then you would go into the formal dining room, and that table would be covered with German chocolate cake, coconut cake, cookies, pumpkin pies and apple pies, and lemon bars. There would be Jell-O molds. As a kid I was never into that. It was weird — cranberries, walnuts and celery. There would be boiled custard, homemade eggnog and rum balls. For an impressionable kid, that was this room of magical power. It was mystical to see all these desserts in one place.
Looking back on it now, the house was very small, and the kitchen was small. To pump all that out, I'm guessing it was a two- or three-day time span.
On Christmas Day, we would go to visit my father's side. His mom, my grandmother, would have prime-rib roast, ham and corn pudding — my favorite thing at her house. The corn pudding we do at the restaurant is from her recipe. There's nutmeg in it, and a lot of sugar. It's a pretty simple recipe.
One of the great things was that after Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, both of them would send us home with grocery bags full of leftovers. For the following week, we would be able to eat those. —as told to Tina Eshleman
To view a video of Velma Johnson and other local chefs sharing their Southern food stories, follow this link .