This article contains spoilers about the most recent episode of “Top Chef.”
A black female chef from an era when those words were rarely seen together is finally getting her due among a broader audience. An iconic cookbook by Edna Lewis, the Virginia-born granddaughter of slaves who became “The Julia Child of the South,” shot up to number 5 on the Amazon cookbook bestseller list, and number 11 on its overall bestseller list as of the time this article was published, after a touching tribute on last night’s episode of the Bravo show “Top Chef.”
Lewis, who died in 2006 at 89, is already well-known — worshipped, really — among many culinary professionals. She moved to New York City in the 1940s, and after working briefly as a seamstress, she became a chef at Café Nicholson, a popular haunt for such celebrities as Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Greta Garbo and Salvador Dali. She later worked at the Brooklyn restaurant Gage & Tollner, and at Middleton Place in Charleston, S.C. Lewis wrote several books, most notably the 1976 book “The Taste of Country Cooking,” the one currently shooting up the Amazon charts. (Disclosure: The Washington Post and Amazon share an owner.)
Lewis’s books helped people understand the sophistication of Southern cooking — “It’s not all fried chicken and greasy greens,” she said in a 1990 Washington Post interview. Though she received many accolades from such culinary groups as the Southern Foodways Alliance and the James Beard Foundation, and influenced many of the most famous Southern chefs today, she wasn’t exactly a household name. Maybe it was because of her no-nonsense demeanor. From the same 1990 Post story: “Lewis’ style is not so much creative as it is recreative, not so much analytical as it is practical. As she said at the opening of her speech [at the Smithsonian]: ‘We’re always cookin’. We never have time to talk about it.'”
But Lewis has gotten more attention in recent years. The New York Times Magazine published a long feature story examining her culinary impact in 2015. The last year saw both the 100th anniversary of her birth and the 40th anniversary of the publication of “The Taste of Country Cooking.” Artifacts of hers were collected for the foodways exhibition at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened last year. And an anthology of essays about her, to be published by the UNC Press, is in the works.
On Thursday’s Charleston-set “Top Chef,” the cheftestants were asked to make a dish that paid homage to her influence, cooked in her former restaurant kitchen. For many viewers, it was an introduction to Lewis. “As a powerful figure that elevated cooking in the South above many of the stereotypes still held today, it’s shocking that many of the chefs don’t know her name,” wrote Eater recapper Alison Leiby. “I mean, until this episode I didn’t know who she was, but I’m also not a chef.” Lewis’s story caught some of the chefs by surprise. “‘I have no clue who Edna Lewis is,’ whispers Sheldon [Simeon]. Jamie [Lynch] also does not know who Edna Lewis is,” Rachel Sugar recapped for Grubstreet. “‘It’s really mind-boggling to me that more chefs don’t know about Edna Lewis,’ exclaims Jim [Smith], mind boggled. ‘She was such a pioneer in her field! She has her own freaking postage stamp!'”
African-American chef Sylva Senat’s cornmeal-crusted snapper was, in the end, deemed the most Lewis-like dish, though the chef was also among those who wasn’t familiar with Lewis’s work. But even those who are just beginning to appreciate her would agree with what she told the Post in 1990: “Eating is one of the great pleasures of life,” she said. “If it tastes good, it makes everyone happy.”