When Todd Richards and Joshua Lee first met in 2015, they were executive chefs at two restaurants owned by the same company, two blocks apart in downtown Atlanta. They soon realized they shared a bigger goal: to own restaurants outright, so they could help more Black people and other people of color discover and harness their passions in and around the kitchen.

The two started talking about a “five-year plan over a good bottle of whiskey,” Richards said. “Josh and I said then that one day, we would get together and open a place, because if we were going to work this hard for somebody else, then we were going to take care of those we consider family.”

That dream came to fruition Independence Day weekend, when the two opened Lake & Oak Neighborhood BBQ as a weekend pop-up eight miles east of downtown, serving mouthwatering ribs, tender brisket, smoked mac and cheese, collard greens with smoked turkey, jalapeño cream corn and savory Chicago red sauce.

The menu selections are mostly seasoned with local freshly ground cumin, turmeric and ginger. Meats are brined a minimum of 24 hours and cooked low and slow. But Richards and Lee baked a larger mission into the mantra: celebrating Black excellence through food and customer service. Notable Black chefs such as Duane Nutter, Reggie Washington and Erika Council lead rotating cooking workshops on the patio as part of a long-term effort to educate the community around Lake & Oak about Black culinary traditions. Those presentations are also a chance for Richards and Lee to support their peers, many of whom were furloughed, laid off or forced to close their doors for good because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The pandemic hit even closer to home for Richards, 49, when he contracted covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in March, forcing him out of work for “nine to 12 weeks.” Refusing to be stagnant while virus cases and protests against systemic racism spiked, Richards worked closely with Lee over six weeks to get Lake & Oak’s doors open and catapult them into independent restaurateurs.

Because he could barely feel his legs, Richards was primarily responsible for securing all of the business licenses and permits. He relied on his team to handle most of the physical work.

“This is what Black people have always done,” Richards said. “We’ve made the best out of the worst situations. Delivering delicious food is the best way to make the world better. Now that there’s another crisis on-hand, everyone wants comfort food and to celebrate Black people. It’s time for Afro culture around the world to come together to make this world better, and we’ve done enough for everybody else.”

“We cannot make the social change that we want by working for someone else,” he continued. “We can’t increase or supply living wages or make sure general managers and chef de cuisines have ownership of the company as well. We have to really address changing our community by understanding that if we go into this business.”

Richards, a protege of the late Atlanta chef Darryl Evans, has seen his national profile steadily rise for years. Twice named a semifinalist for a James Beard award, the Chicago native has competed on Food Network’s “Iron Chef America” and won accolades for his 2018 cookbook/memoir “Soul,”

Lee, 38, says the two chefs fine-tuned their collaboration when Richards became culinary director for Jackmont Hospitality at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, a position he still holds. Richards recruited Lee (who calls him “big brother”) as executive chef for Chicken + Beer, one of Jackmont’s international concourse restaurants started by Grammy-winning rapper Ludacris.

“Todd and I both have respect for what we do,” Lee said. “That was our initial bond. When we came together at Jackmont, it ignited it a lot because now we were in the same building and really picking each other’s brains. He’ll start something on the stove, and I’ll go back and finish it. We hit the jackpot; food doesn’t leave the pot until both of us sign off on it.”

Lee, who oversees locally sourcing Lake & Oak’s ingredients, grew up in the once crime-ridden East Lake/Oakhurst. Opening the restaurant in his old neighborhood, he said, allows him to put something back into the community by exposing youths to the possibilities culinary arts can offer.

“When I was a child, this same street wasn’t safe,” Lee said. “Fast forward 20 years later, I have a phenomenal business partner who’s still my mentor, and I’m an owner on the same corner that I wouldn’t walk down.”

Once the pandemic curve truly flattens, Lee, who started out as an Applebee’s server when he was 16, would like to partner and volunteer with the Boys & Girls Clubs or YMCA to lead tutorials on basic food preparation. “I want to drive and push the culinary industry,” he said. “There are lots of young Black men and women that want to step into and love the craft but don’t really know the right avenue to take and get there.”

“We want to bring back hope,” Lee added. “During the pandemic, a lot of people folded and closed. We’ve opened, and we’re not done with just Lake & Oak. We’re providing opportunities for our own.”

In-house, Richards and Lee continue to mentor and retain past staff, such as Lake & Oak’s general manager, Katelyn Thomas. She followed Richards after his Richards’ Southern Fried Hot Chicken concept closed before the pandemic hit.

Thomas, 28, is now a partner in Richards’s independent restaurant group, the Soulful Company. “I actually have a voice here,” she said. “I love that we can communicate and know where each other are coming from.”

At Richards’ Southern Fried, parent company Brewed to Serve “was making all of the decisions,” she said, “so I never had the opportunity to be part of something that allowed me to make decisions. This is growth for me because Todd and Josh both care about what I think and allow me to create solutions in the moment.”

Line cook DeAndre Kitchens has worked alongside Richards for the past decade. They first worked together at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead when a sous-chef was terminated. Watching Richards working beside his staff, Kitchens said, is why he’s so loyal.

“I’ll always be with Todd,” Kitchens said while he prepped. “He always pushes me to go and do my own thing. Some mentors just want you to be under them. He pushes me to go out there, see how things really are, and to live my own dream.”

Gary Caldwell, Chicken + Beer’s current executive chef, was the airport restaurant’s sous-chef alongside Richards and Lee. Also cooking Cajun/Creole fare at Triplz Lounge in Conyers, Ga., before the pandemic hit, Caldwell says both of his former co-workers take great pride in coaching in the moment.

“They take the time to explain to you why you should use a certain technique the way it should be done,” Caldwell said. “Even if you’re going about it the wrong way, Todd will stop you, make you start over, and show you exactly step-by-step. A lot of chefs won’t do things like that.”

Cassandra Loftlin, now a test cook at America’s Test Kitchen, also worked alongside Richards and Lee at various Brewed to Serve properties. Also offering culinary courses via Zoom, Loftlin credits her career trajectory to Richards’s open-door policy and Lee’s straightforward advice.

“There were really no secrets,” she said. “I’ve never seen Todd turn anybody away. Most owners and management are pretty tight-lipped. If you wanted your own restaurant, Todd didn’t want you to go in blind. They’re very transparent, but they set you up for success.”

Richards and Lee are both determined to build on their momentum. They plan to provide food and water to voters at local precincts on Election Day and have started plans to rebrand Richards’ Southern Fried as Soul.

After Labor Day, Lake & Oak is expanding its operations to six days a week with patio and indoor dining in addition to takeout. And its core mission remains: for Lake & Oak to act as one catalyst that can make the restaurant industry more diverse and inclusive for the next generation while being a pillar in the community.

“There’s still a scarcity of people that look like me,” Richards said. “It’s irresponsible of me to not look at the next person to take over for me in the kitchen. I have no promise for how long I’m going to be here. I do have a promise to the people that come after me. If they’re all better than me, then they’re going to be successful. Selfishly, that feeds my ego. If they’re talking about me or Josh and they’re better than me, then I’ve done my job.”

Daniel is an Atlanta-based journalist and multimedia journalism professor at Clark Atlanta University.

More from Voraciously