How to Make Creamy Oatmeal Like Charlotte’s Chef Greg Collier
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Chef Greg Collier wants to tell the whole story of Southern cuisine.
Collier, the executive chef and co-owner of Leah & Louise with his wife and business partner, Subrina, has spent his career developing the concept of Southern cuisine. Leah & Louise, their fifth Charlotte-area concept which just spent its first year at Camp North End, is a prime example. There is oatmeal, fish stew, and fried chicken skins on the menu. But to call it soul food would be a mistake.
“I love fried catfish. I love the mac and cheese. I love cooked collard greens and could eat it every day. But we don’t do it here. We can make pickled cabbage stalks or coleslaw, or pickle them in salted water overnight and throw them on a grill and serve them over something as a garnish. It’s just not on my menu because that’s not the point. It’s about paying tribute to the chefs who came before me, but we’ve changed things to make it our own. Yet the lineage is visible, ”Collier said.
He described a menu item called Mud Island, a tribute to fish and oatmeal with a brown roux. Brown roux is found in okra and some jambalayas, but the mixture of flour and lightly burnt butter is used for flavoring, not thickening. Collier uses catfish bones to make the stock, as well as rice grits and South Carolina field peas.
“When we talk about black food, aka southern food, it’s a conversation about heritage,” Collier said. “I want black people to know this is your food. It’s more than cooked collard greens. The green cabbage as an ingredient belongs to you culturally; so this includes coleslaw salads, coleslaw, pickled chow chow, as well as cooked green cabbage. My mentor, Todd Richards, makes collard greens pesto and cooks oysters in it. It’s part of the growth. It is a reinterpretation. “
However, Collier said black chefs don’t often have the opportunity to push the boundaries of the cuisine they’ve started.
A history of southern cuisine
Southern cuisine is inspired by three main culinary traditions: ancient African foods and techniques brought through the slave trade, European dishes such as chitterlings and macaroni, and indigenous spices and ingredients like corn. However, the biggest names in modern Southern cuisine are not so diverse: Paula Deen and Art Smith, for example, have built million dollar empires on food prepared for centuries by dark minions.
“Anyway, if you go back far enough, you come to black women to cook this food.” Irish settlers came and learned the techniques from our great-great-grandmothers, ”Collier said. “Tell the whole story. There is pain, but also beauty associated with it. You also have a legacy, so put your legacy on the table and stop telling the story of my legacy as if it were your own. I prefer to see the Russian or Irish interpretation of southern cuisine. It would be dope! There is nothing wrong with telling the whole story. ”
Collier grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, in a house just behind her grandmother’s. He stayed in the kitchen and the garden with her, starting to learn cooking from the age of 5. There he learned the basics and importance of Southern cooking, starting with a pot of oatmeal.
“It’s simple, but extremely important for southern food and soul food,” he said. “His most important and longest lasting lesson was that you can’t cook great food quickly. How much love can you put in food if you only cook it for 10 minutes? Take your time and do it well. “
The basics of grits
Many people have grown up on Quaker Instant Oatmeal, which has a very fine grain and is blanched or precooked to shorten the time it takes to prepare. It’s a quick way to feed rowdy kids, but it’s not the ultimate in flavor or texture. And in Charlotte, where many northern transplants may never have tried grits before, that’s not a true reflection of the southern specialty.
“At Leah & Louise, we do southern cuisine that is upscale and thoughtful, but we do grits. Grits is just the basics. But it’s an important base, so we take time with it, ”Collier said.
Collier derives its grain from Farm & Sparrow. They are an organic blend of coarsely ground white, yellow and orange grains that cook in buttery, textured, and thick. His cooking usually simmers a saucepan for two hours; when they are ladled, you can eat them with a fork. Its breakfast oatmeal is boiled in milk and butter, but the dinner oatmeal can contain either a meat or vegetable broth, depending on the flavors desired, for a more flavorful kick.
Make your grain however you like, Collier advised. With one exception: “The sugar in oatmeal is not a real thing. I don’t know why people do it. My wife does, even though she thinks we make the best beans ever. I don’t understand, ”he says.
To keep the oatmeal from sticking to the pot, Collier said to bring the liquid to a boil first, continuously whisking the oatmeal so that all the grains have a chance to hydrate. Once the liquid has come back to a boil, lower the temperature to a boil, but don’t go away.
“That’s why the grains stick, because people don’t constantly stir them. The heat comes from the bottom of the pot, so if they don’t move, the bottom layer cooks them, not the boiling liquid, ”he said. “The important thing is not to rush. All starchy foods need to cook with oatmeal, and that takes time. If someone makes breakfast for you and they get up when you get up, don’t trust them.
Collier said her grandmother taught her that a good meal also requires spending time together.
“And we don’t live in the days of our grandparents and great-grandparents anymore, but I miss it. I miss sitting at the table and having conversations with my friends and family. It was extremely vital. At some point, I want to open a restaurant for Sunday dinner just for this purpose. “
Work as a black chef
Collier, a two-time semi-finalist for the James Beard Foundation Awards (the Oscars of Cooking), has taken a roundabout path to create one of America’s most recognized new restaurants. After a half-hearted attempt at college, he returned to Memphis and bounced back. A friend’s father opened a restaurant wing and offered him his first cooking job. He started out as a dishwasher, then moved on to food preparation and eventually to cooking.
“I read a book that said do what people know you for, and everyone knew me from hot wings,” he said. So Collier enrolled in the Phoenix Culinary School. He and Subrina got married, and Collier was ready to move on, but he continued to meet resistance.
“Opportunities are not the same for everyone. A lot of times the executive chef was different from me, and we weren’t sharing a connection, so I wasn’t selected for the next location, ”Collier said. “[They’d] seeing my talent but not seeing me as a leader, when this other guy whose skills weren’t as good as mine would get promoted.
The Colliers arrived in Charlotte in 2012 and quickly opened their first restaurant, an outpost in Rock Hill called The Yolk. Yolk II in Ayrsley and Uptown Yolk quickly followed, then Loft & Cellar. While only Leah & Louise remain in business, the Colliers have solidified their reputation as a culinary couple – although Collier readily admits he’s not sure why it worked.
“We opened up to a place that wasn’t South End, Ballantyne, NoDa, or one of the sexy neighborhoods. Two people from Memphis opened a black-owned place in a pandemic that cooks Southern food but not soul food, based on Mississippi Valley food routes? That does not make sense. But Subrina created a space that spoke to her culturally about Memphis, and I created food that spoke to me culturally. And together, we have created a welcoming environment for black customers, ”said Collier.
The common-themed juke restaurant is a creative flight from the usual offerings. It’s very dark, but not at all monolithic. The dining room, menu, drink program, and music vibrate with subtle cultural references that envelop patrons in a story – not The Story, but one of the many stories of southern black cuisine.
Chef Greg Collier of Leah & Louise
2 cups of broth of your choice (vegetables, chicken, etc.)
2 cups of milk, plus 2 cups to dilute the mixture if necessary
¼ pound of butter
½ cup coarsely ground yellow grains
½ cup coarsely ground white grains
2 tablespoon of salt
1 teaspoon of black pepper
Method of production
Bring the milk, broth, butter, salt and pepper to a boil.
Add the yellow and white oatmeal, stir until the mixture comes back to a boil.
Reduce heat to low and cover, stirring periodically.
Simmer until the mixture is creamy and cooked through, about 45 minutes.