"Oprah, you need to try this": Chef Kenny Gilbert on fusion food and his famous fried chicken

The "Top Chef" star's first cookbook, "Southern Cooking, Global Flavors" is out now

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published April 22, 2023 4:00PM (EDT)

Chef Kenny Gilbert (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Kristen Penoyer)
Chef Kenny Gilbert (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Kristen Penoyer)

When I read cookbooks — for both work and pleasure — I tend to keep notes: about recipes I want to make, new techniques I plan on trying and, sometimes, like in the case of Kenny Gilbert's "Southern Cooking, Global Flavors," how the writing makes me feel. 

"Each recipe is like a hug," I scribbled, flipping back and forth between the meatloaf and macaroni and cheese chapters. I'm not really surprised. You may remember, as I did,  Gilbert's warm, gregarious personality from the seventh season of "Top Chef."  

And like he did on the series, Gilbert uses this book as an opportunity to reimagine iconic dishes of the American South, like fried chicken and biscuits, fish and grits, and ribs and slaw, using global flavors. For instance, the "meatloaf and mashed potatoes" chapter includes recipes for: bacon-wrapped meatloaf with sour cream mashed potatoes; shawarma-spiced lamb meatloaf with feta and kalamata mashed potatoes; turkey meatloaf with moroccan spices and cashew-cauliflower mash; Italian meatloaf with white truffle and mascarpone mashed potatoes

When speaking with Gilbert about "Southern Cooking, Global Flavors," which was released this week, it turned out that my hug analogy wasn't far off from his intention with this cookbook. 

"If I'm talking to one of my best friends who's Italian and we're talking food, and I want to cook for him, I want him to have something that's like that warm hug from grandma — but his grandma," Gilbert explained. That said, he loves to mash it up with the foods he was raised on and still serves in award-winning restaurant Silkie's Chicken and Champagne Bar in Jacksonville, Florida. 

He continued: "I wanted to be able to share my experiences through common foods people can relate to."

Gilbert spoke with Salon Food about the concept of "fusion cuisine," beating Bobby Flay and the first time Oprah Winfrey tried his fried chicken. 

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

What can people expect when they use your cookbook?

What they can expect is to get some very basic southern preparations dishes that speak to my heart and my upbringing growing up and whatnot. Each chapter will take you on a journey through my lens of my experiences with other cultures through friends, family, coworkers and just breaking bread and talking about, "Hey, what did you eat when you were growing up?" It literally came about like that. I wanted to be able to share my experiences through common foods people can relate to.

I noticed that your mom pops up a lot in the cookbook from the introduction to the meatloaf recipe. Can you talk about your relationship with her, how she played a role in your cooking and how she framed cooking for you as a boy?

I was very fortunate that my mom, she had two boys, me and my brother Kirk, who's also a chef, she nurtured us. Anything that she saw that we actually had an interest in, she nurtured that talent. If we wanted to play a sport, like swimming, she's like, "Okay, cool. You're going to swim as long as you want to do it." 

"Each chapter will take you on a journey through my lens of my experiences with other cultures through friends, family, coworkers and just breaking bread."

In terms of cooking, I was always by her side as she was walking around the house and when she was cooking meals. I was right there paying attention and she was a very warm and friendly person but very firm at the same time. She raised two boys very fairly and I credit my whole career really to her nurturing ability to teach. She taught me how to scramble my first egg at three years old and then she also taught me how to clean and to pay attention to safety and things like that. My whole career has really been shaped around her starting that time with me back when I was a little boy.

In the introduction you said, "Every American has their own food culture at home." What are some examples from your childhood that come to mind that were specific to your home food culture?

My mom is from the South and my dad's from the Midwest, so in our household there were two different perspectives on food and the idea of what we should be eating during different meal periods. Not really realizing what was going on, all of a sudden we're having cornbread dressing and maybe this dressing had oysters in it and then all of a sudden we have a shrimp perloo rice dish. I started to realize as I talked to her more about food that it was all based on, "Oh, well this is what I had when I was growing up as a little girl."

Southern Cooking Global FlavorsSouthern Cooking Global Flavors (Photo by Kristen Penoyer)Then my dad, very well traveled, was more meat, potatoes, and also would try different things from other ethnicities and cultures around the city by trying different restaurants. So growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, suburb of Euclid, actually, we had these neighborhood pockets. I was a swimmer as a kid, and being on a swim team, and having friends and just spending the night over at a friend's house, the friend might have been a white kid that was Italian. Me opening up the refrigerator and seeing what was in their refrigerator was way different than what was in mine. Throughout growing up, I associated what my friends looked like and what their cultural influence was related to food. That's how the dots connected for me.

Do you consider the dishes that you've created to be fusion cuisine? How do you classify them?

As I mentioned, my mom was from the South and she raised me up in Ohio, and so to be up there, she was craving some things that are southern, but her ingredients around here were very Midwestern. She wasn't able to get grouper, and mahi-mahi or a local Mayport shrimp that's very regional to the South, so she adapted the flavors that she wanted to enjoy based on the ingredients that were around there. I grew eating a lot of say fried perch or things like that and so if she wanted to have fried green tomatoes and fish with grits and whatever, it was like, "Oh, okay, we're going to get some perch or we're going to get some pike." That's what I had. Whereas if I'm down in the South and say a person is a transplant from New York, and Northern Italian American, but all of a sudden they figure they had a love for biscuits, but they wanted flavors that they can relate to other than that basic buttermilk biscuit.

"Mr. Graham had the fried chicken and he took a bite of it and said, 'Oh no, Oprah, you need to try this.'"

I love chicken parmesan, but I love a biscuit. Why can't I make a biscuit that has a flavors of the Parmesan, and garlic, and everything that it has? So that's how I did it. I more so looked at who we are as people and families, and this whole melting pot of families, but we're embedded in the South. If you're craving oxtails and you love the basic oxtails, but maybe your husband, or wife or whoever is Filipino and they love oxtails too but they want it to have some flavors that they grew up having, why can't we make those oxtails like an adobo style versus a classic Southern or a Guyanese pepperpot style? So that's how it all came about. 

I really wanted to have some of those common dishes where they could be a flex. You could twist it, and actually take a couple of these ingredients out, and put these other ingredients in. I wanted to show the diversity of the dishes and the commonality of it.

There were a couple dishes that I wanted to highlight, partially just because I've already put them on my menu. There's this step in your meatloaf and mashed potatoes that I thought is noteworthy to home cooks where you actually blend the vegetables. Could you talk me through how you came to do that and what it offers the dish in terms of texture and flavor?

The classic meatloaf, a lot of times you have this ground beef and then it's like "Oh, let's take some peppers, onions and maybe celery and throw it all in, and mix it in, and then you bake it off." And then when this meatloaf is baked off, and you put a glaze of ketchup on it and you slice it, then you see these chunks of peppers and onions in there. I never really liked that. I felt like I was being cheated with the vegetables throughout the bite. So I said, "Well, why not take these vegetables and puree it up and then fold it in?" That way every bite, I'm getting equally balanced flavors with purpose. If I wanted to put celery and garlic, and so on, so forth in there, then I want to taste it through every bite with the meat versus having hints of different chunks.

Southern Cooking Global FlavorsSouthern Cooking Global Flavors (Photo by Kristen Penoyer)

So it was one, because I didn't like the chunks in it, two, in a restaurant setting, when you're cutting up a bunch of vegetables, it's a lot faster also for me to take my trinity, my pepper, celery, and onions, puree that with some garlic and some herbs, have that base, and then say, okay, cool. I need to have eggs in here too. I got to puree all that up together and then add it in. And I'm not having to sit there, and slice and dice all these vegetables up. I can cut it up in bigger chunks, wash the vegetable really nice, puree it up, and then add it. So it was two part, one, I didn't like the individual chunks, and then two, it made it more streamlined and faster to execute larger batches of products.

That ties into the next recipe that I wanted to talk about. It's the miso honey-glazed salmon with bamboo rice grits. I feel like this is a good example of a dish that, when I saw it, I'm like "Oh, this feels very fancy," but then I started reading and I'm like, "Oh, this is something that's actually totally doable on a weeknight as well." Walk me through the development of that dish. 

I'm been fortunate that I travel abroad, cook a lot of things, eaten a lot of different things, and at one point I was in Japan, I have a lot of friends that are Chinese-American and whatnot, and I love the idea of say the rice porridge or kanji or rice grits. It's almost the same thing. It's this neutral base that you can place something on and that actually has more flavor to enhance. I felt like the bamboo rice grits would be something, again, unique to get those kind of rice, but the technique of cooking it is very simple. If you can make a pot of grits, you can make this dish. It's very, very easy. You're not worrying about the rice being cooked perfect, you want the rice to break down, have some texture, but have a very creamy finish to it.

"You could twist it, and actually take a couple of these ingredients out, and put these other ingredients in."

As far as the fish, if you go to a Nobu or something like that where the original miso cod was or sablefish was introduced, I wanted to have something that I think that the home cook could actually execute very easily that has good flavors, a very simple recipe, a matter just mixing up some miso and honey, a little sake, season it up, and let the fish marinate in that. You want to actually have a fatty fish, so salmon being very common for a lot of times people will buy and have it home, I thought it would be a very good pairing that would be relatable if you wanted to go in more of a Asian direction in terms of flavor profiles.

What would be some good novice recipes from your book?

I taught a lot of cooking classes throughout my career. I was with the Ritz-Carlton for a long time, and I used to teach a cooking class program the second Tuesday and Wednesday of the month. I did it for years, and years, and years, so for me to finally be able to write a cookbook, I felt like I've already done it a million times by the amount of recipes I've already created for these classes and curriculum, but that's a hard question. 

I guess a question for me would be what steps are they at? Are they super, super entry-level basic? I think that the drop biscuits and the fried chicken surprisingly is a good chapter, because it teaches you how to make a good drop biscuit. It's teaching you how to bake and fry, two very basic techniques, and it walks you through the process of how you can season the chicken, how you can dredge the chicken. And then also how you can take these basic ingredients of self-rising flour, and some buttermilk, and melted butter, and mine has a little bit more ingredients in there, but it'll show you how to make something that is very simple. If you like that Red Lobster cheesy, soft, buttery biscuit, that's a drop style biscuit. I wanted to introduce that because a lot of people are doing laminated doughs or laminated biscuits that are layered with the chilled butter and everything, which is great, but I figured that this would be a good way to start and then also evolve to other flavor profiles.

That's a good chapter to start because sometimes people are intimidated by a biscuit and they're intimidated by fried chicken. I did a cooking class during COVID for a couple, the husband paid for me to do a Zoom cooking class and I didn't realize where they were from. All of a sudden we got on the call, and she's Indian and he's English. They were in London. We were literally doing a Zoom call across the world. It was funny because I was showing them how to do my mom's fried chicken, and so I had some basic spices that we take for granted that are here. It was like, "Oh, I'll give you some lemon pepper. Here's some Lawry's Seasoned Salt, stuff like that." "Well, we don't have those spices here specifically."

Then when I sized them up I was like, "Well, do you have any Madras curry powder? Do you have any garam masala? Do you have any fenugreek? Do you have any ground cumin or ground coriander?" I already assumed just by looking at the family dynamic what their core basics were going to be in their pantry because of the ethnicity, the cultural background. And sure enough, she had all those spices. I said, "Okay, I'm going to show you the technique of how to cook the fried chicken, but the flavors are going to be identifiable because of the spices you have in your pantry." It went off without a hitch. That's how this whole thing came about as well, so he bought that for her because she was a decent cook, but never did fried chicken or biscuits. And I said, "Well, this is a good recipe. This drop biscuit is very easy and the fried chicken is easy as well."

I was talking with one of my producers this morning and we were joking that we were going to meal prep for next week, but we were just going to use all of your mac and cheese recipes, and have a a week of mac and cheese. How did you take something that everybody thinks that they have, this is the perfect mac and cheese recipe, and then start to riff on that? 

"I wanted to be able to share my experiences through common foods people can relate to."

The way my brain works is just whatever I'm thinking about. If I'm talking to one of my best friends who's Italian and we're talking food, and I want to cook for him, and I want him to have something that's like that warm hug from grandma, but his grandma, but also from my side of things in terms of this would make a good mac and cheese, and some chicken or whatever. I transport myself into that realm and then I think about all the core basics of flavor profiles, whether it's the cheese, whether it's the type of pasta that would be more relatable, the chicken that's going with it, how am I going to season that to compliment. And so that's how that all came about, I wanted something that would be unique. Because if you're a mac and cheese lover, you're going to be like, "Oh cool, wait a minute, there's more than one variation."

I wanted to be able to show, "Hey, this is my basic foundation, how I make mac and cheese." And then now, you can take these cheeses out, add these cheeses in, and then now you have a different experience. And you can pair that up with different proteins, or vegetables, or whatever. So that was a fun chapter because I knew that people would definitely vibe off of that.

Southern Cooking Global FlavorsSouthern Cooking Global Flavors (Photo by Kristen Penoyer)

You mentioned in your cookbook that your fried chicken recipe is tailored to the palate of Oprah Winfrey. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

My original fried chicken I learned how to make with my mom, she would take chicken, wash it in the sink with some cold water, and then season it up, have a cast iron skillet going, flick a little flour in there to see that it's bubbling, and then put the flour on the chicken, let it get a little tacky, flour one more time, fry. Rotate, rotate, rotate. Fast-forward to me having the opportunity to cook for Oprah Winfrey. A good friend of mine was her personal chef for years, and I've been cooking for her since 2014.

The first time I had the opportunity to cook fried chicken for her was leading into the new year. It was actually New Year's of 2015. We were doing a classic Southern New Year's Day dinner, and we had fried chicken, we had collard greens, black-eyed peas and all that. It was my first time frying chicken for her. Art Smith, who was her previous personal chef, had the best fried chicken that she ever had for a long time, and so we wanted to try to beat that impression. That was the goal.

We want you to say we love your fried chicken. I wanted to hear from her mouth. After a prayer over the table, she was like, "Hey, Stedman, you need to finish off that prayer a little bit faster. I hear that chicken crackling in the back." And when we were done, we pulled the chicken, and we head out there on a beautiful display. Kirby was the first person to eat a bite of fried chicken, Gayle's daughter, and she was like, "Oh my gosh." And everyone was like, "What happened?" And she was like, "This has to be the best fried chicken I've ever had in my life." And then Ms. Winfrey was like, "Oh, is it better than Art's?" And I had a beautiful smoked ham, and I was carving the ham and whatnot, and Kirby was like, "Oh yeah." And ironically, Art and I did a beautiful event weeks prior, and so it was fresh in everyone's mind. And so Mr. Graham had the fried chicken and he took a bite of it and said, "Oh no, Oprah, you need to try this fried chicken." 

"Being that I grew up cooking with a lot of spices, that was my first love."

She's just an amazing hostess, and she's waiting for everyone to go through this beautiful buffet we had and start eating before she went in, and she then got a piece of fried chicken thigh, and then she sat down. She had a little bit of peas and greens. And I said, "Ms. Winfrey, would you like any hot sauce?" And she was like, "If it needs it, I'll grab it." And I was like, "Aw," because I made all these homemade hot sauces with peppers from her garden. She took a bite and she loved it, and she looked at me, she said, "Kenny, you did all this, right?" And I said, "Yes, ma'am." And she said, "All my years, 60 years I've been on this earth, this has to be one of the best Southern meals I've ever had in my life. Thank you very much for sharing your passion with us." Everyone clapped and everything. And then from that point on, every time there is an event, usually she would ask me to come out and do fried chicken and biscuits and stuff like that. So for the last eight, nine years now, that's what's been happening. 

A few years ago now, you beat Bobby Flay on his television show "Beat Bobby Flay," and I was curious if you could talk a little bit about on that day, what do you think gave you the edge? 

Cooking competitively is great, but regardless who the judges are, it's subjective. They're going to get the food in front of them, and then based on how they like to eat and the idea that dish will speak to them. Usually because they're going to select some judges that are very well traveled, and have great palate, and are probably restaurateurs, they're used to eating for a living. They get it. 

That particular day, I like to say a lot of times that Bobby is such a talented chef and the ego of the chef to be able to say, "Hey, you know what? Come on my show. Try to beat me with your recipe." Because that's how the show is set up, you have to beat another chef from an ingredient that he basically shares. So, "Hey, here's okra. You guys duke it out on okra and then whoever wins, tell me what your best dish is, and I'm going to beat you at that as well." That New York ego, swag is special. 

For me to be able to take a dish that I feel like I make very well, which was chicken and dumplings, that I have a personal connection to, it's been a lot different than his connection to it. Has he had it? Yes. Has he eaten it since he was five, six years old every pre-Thanksgiving for 12, 13 years? Probably not. So I have a edge on that, so for me, to be able to put together something that I thought that everyone could identify to, that had a little twist, that was flavorful, I felt like I had more of an edge than me competing against an Iron Chef in that particular situation.

I would love to be able to compete against him in an Iron Chef setting where it's truly like, "Hey, here's ingredients," it's an even playing field, because I felt like I had an edge on him. And again, when you're cooking against an Iron Chef, that's the thing, these guys are more experienced, they've been cooking a little bit longer than you have, they've got a lot more accolades. As many accolades as I have, that particular episode, I was the last episode of the season for him. So he was already super warmed up. See, people don't think about that. He'd already competed eight episodes, I was the ninth episode or something like that. So over the course of a couple weeks, he's already in his kitchen that they set up based on how he likes to cook, and he's already cooked against seven or eight other chefs. So he has an advantage. You're coming into his house, cooking your dish, but he's in his house. He's on TV all the time, he's cooking all the time.

And competitive cooking all the time which, like you said, is such a different thing. Can you talk about that? How closely does the type of cooking you see on TV resemble the kind of cooking that you do in a restaurant? 

It's actually pretty fair in a sense and pretty close to a restaurant because all your cooking equipment, they have you locked in. It's like here, you already have a pot of water boiling, you already have a little fryer already at 350, your oven's already set at 350, you have plenty of burners. You have every core ingredient you can think of for dry goods, produce, so your common pantry items is amazing. And it's just as amazing for the chef that you're cooking against. These are the best ingredients. If you grab a tomato, it's going to be sweet, it's going to be beautiful. You grab kohlrabi or a mushroom, it's going to be the best. If you need truffles, they're there. So you have even playing fields and it's very, very close.

For some kitchens, more likely you're going to have more in this competitive kitchen setting than you are in your kitchen, because if your restaurant is set up to be Southern from Charleston, and you might be a Sean Brock type, you're not cooking with anything that is not in this particular vicinity because you're really, really farm-to-table and artisanal, when you see something that's like oh man, I'm not used to getting this type of mushroom here or whatever, that could trip you up a little bit. At the end of the day, they're some of the best ingredients out there, and that's the great part about it. And your equipment, you have everything you need. You might have anti-griddles over here, you're going to have a Carpigiani ice cream machine over here, you're going to have a circulator already set. You're got liquid nitrogen around the corner. You're going to have a lot of the bells and whistles.

Like we've talked about, everybody has a different culture that they cook from at home, so what are certain things that you make sure that you have stocked in your pantry? 

So spice. Being that I grew up cooking with a lot of spices, that was my first love. Always a plethora of spices. And usually in the individual form versus blend. So I'm always going to have granulated garlic, granulated onion, a nice salt, probably a couple different types of salt, whether it's a kosher salt, whether it's a pink Himalayan salt, a really good black pepper, like a Tellicherry black peppercorns that you can grind fresh. I don't mind dry herbs, so sometimes dry parsley or dry dill, dry oregano, not necessarily dry basil.

Olive oil, a good olive oil, like a pomace, so not necessarily extra virgin, something that I can cook with. A neutral oil, like a safflower oil. I've been using a lot of avocado oil or I buy a oil that's associated with the culture that I'm going to be cooking with so it's all relatable. And then vinegars, usually apple cider vinegar, balsamic or white vinegar. Self-rising flour, usually, sugar, granulated white sugar, brown sugar, some kind of syrup. Usually cane syrup because I grew up eating an ALAGA cane syrup with my mom, usually molasses, honey. So I usually have two or three of every kind of section there.

My pantry is pretty vast, but those are the core. If I have that, and then I just need to go to the store and buy fresh produce and some proteins, I usually even go from there. Pasta, rice. I prefer jasmine rice. Usually always some grits, nice stone-ground. I might even have some quick grits in there just to cheat if I want to have a nostalgic cooking with my mom, really quick grit versus the one that takes 30 minutes.

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By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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