The Rolling Stones. Elvis Presley. Eric Clapton. Chet Baker. Let’s face it–history is replete with white folks who have “appropriated” (nice word for stolen) elements of African-American culture. These artists would have been the first to admit that they owe their fortune and fame in large part to the contributions of black musicians.
Yet, the simple fact is that the world would be a much poorer place without the Stones, Presley or Clapton. Sometimes “appropriating” a culture is the best thing that can happen for all of us, because a whole new audience is exposed to a rich tradition and perspective.
The same principle applies to food. Soul food is a potent expression of African-American history. Black people spun culinary gold from deprivation, humiliation and despair, creating marvelous cuisine from discarded scraps.
Samuel Monsour, chef at Preux and Proper, is kind of the Eric Clapton of food. He’s a white guy. But he has a real passion for the cuisine of the South and, more importantly, really knows how to cook. At 17, he was the head chef at his father’s restaurant in North Carolina, serving up Southern favorites such as crawfish étouffée and red beans and rice.
He’s since moved to L.A., and is now serving sophisticated Southern fare with a twist in the three-sided flatiron building that houses Preux and Proper. Downstairs there’s a long bar that occupies the pointy tip of the triangle. Upstairs, however, you’ll find a surprisingly spacious restaurant that specializes in reimagined soul food.
Monsour serves thoroughly familiar dishes in an unfamiliar way. For example, anyone who knows soul food loves collard greens, but here pork shoulder and homemade hot sauce transform this beloved favorite with a distinctive blend of smokiness and heat. I’ve had cornbread before, but never with a coating of thick, golden Kentucky sorghum. Everyone and their mother serves chicken and waffles, but Monsour’s version features a buttermilk cornmeal waffle that provides a unique texture and flavor that you won’t find at IHOP. Black ale turns macaroni and cheese into something never dreamed of by Kraft. Best of all may be the baked beans, where tiny red peas stand in for the beans and a current of blackstrap molasses adds a rich sweetness.
All this imagination and invention doesn’t come cheap. The collards will run you about 15 bucks. This is soul food for people who will never know the pain of sharecropping, Jim Crow laws or segregation. But when a culture’s contributions are treated with this much respect and thoughtfulness, everyone’s richer and wiser.