On a crisp spring morning, chef David Thomas stands in the kitchen of his Parkville cafe, Herb & Soul, prepping for a busy day of cooking.
Plastic tubs overflow with fresh kale, while shelves hold spices that will impart flavor to the chef's Old Bay Fried Chicken, mac and cheese, and smoked chili-rubbed boneless short ribs with homemade sauce.
At first blush, the menu might bring to mind soul food, although Thomas describes his farm-to-table, sustainable fare as Southern fusion. It showcases fresh, locally sourced and organic ingredients.
Thomas is among a wave of chefs in the Baltimore region and across the country who are tweaking traditional soul food and Southern cooking — with its reputation for being salty, starchy and greasy — to make it healthier.
"The whole idea of feeding the soul is not just words to me," says the Baltimore native, a onetime corporate chef who opened Herb & Soul as a carry-out in 2012, before expanding to a sit-down restaurant last April. "I want to give people food they enjoy, that's good for them."
That topic will be the focal point of an event Sunday at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture in Baltimore.
The museum will screen "Soul Food Junkies," a documentary by filmmaker Byron Hurt that delves into soul food's evolution, cultural and social implications, and its effect on modern health problems in communities of color.
As Thomas created the menu at his 55-seat establishment, which is located in a former convenience store, the chef reimagined soul classics. He made them lighter with global accents.
The savory Liberian greens feature collards or kale with peppers and onions. The catfish boasts a Thai curry glaze, while the Hoppin' John swaps the traditional black-eyed peas for jasmine rice and black beans. The chef gave his Herb and Soul rolls, which resemble Chinese egg rolls, a gastronomic twist: a filling of collards, yams, and pulled jerk chicken.
Despite their makeover, the dishes draw from Southern food staples such as leafy greens, grits and cornmeal, pork, root vegetables and seafood.
"Southern food is regional cooking," says Cindy Wolf, a James Beard Award-nominated chef whose Harbor East restaurant Charleston was recognized by OpenTable as one of the top five restaurants in the country. "The history of the cooking is influenced and driven by the people. … The product that naturally grew and later was farmed in the different regions of the South."
Wolf's cuisine is rooted in French fundamentals and the Low Country cooking of South Carolina, but it incorporates regional and international influences. The changing daily menu focuses on natural preparation of "the very best products" and purity of flavor. "I walk in the footsteps of other cooks," Wolf said. "I also try to preserve their history. When I put a traditional dish on the menu, I search out the ingredients and make it as authentically as possible."
In "Hog and Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America," Frederick Douglass Opie traces the African origins of what's now called soul food, a phrase coined during the late 1960s and 1970s Black Power movement. He writes of ingenious cooks who transformed food scraps into hearty meals that helped plantation workers survive during slavery. He also explores the complex health legacy of the cuisine.
While obesity is a continuing national epidemic — one in three Americans is obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — minority communities are disproportionately affected. CDC data show African-Americans are 1.5 times as likely to be obese as non-Hispanic whites. Research conducted by the American Heart Association has shown that dietary patterns are linked to heart disease and related conditions such as stroke; African-Americans collectively struggle with above-average rates of diabetes and high blood pressure.
"It's wonderful to remember our roots, but soul food is evolving," says Huda Mu'min, a national TV personality and food blogger who goes by the name of "Chef Huda" and heads the catering company Pretty and Delicious in Prince George's County.
"Today, people are becoming more educated," adds Huda, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Los Angeles. "You don't have to give up your favorite foods, but it's about eating smarter, and balance."
Huda, who does community outreach for Safeway, notes, for instance, that greens can be seasoned with smoked turkey or herbs instead of a ham hock. Multigrain pasta can lend mac and cheese more fiber.
There's also the option of vegan and vegetarian soul food. The Land of Kush, a Mount Vernon eatery, offers soul-inspired menu choices along with items like vegan crab cakes.
"We understand the community's soul traditions but have reworked them with a whole-food, plant-based diet," says co-owner Naijha Wright, who runs the operation with her fiance, chef Gregory Brown, and business partner Darius Waters.
"We serve collards without fatback, baked mac and cheese with vegan cheese, and dairy-free corn bread," she said. "Our barbecue ribs, which have the most delicious sauce, are made with tofu. People love them."
Wright will take part in a panel discussion following the "Soul Food Junkies" screening at the Lewis museum. Also scheduled to participate are City Councilman Nick Mosby; Sarah Buzogany, Baltimore's Office of Sustainability food access coordinator; Denzel Mitchell, founder and farm manager of Five Seeds Family Farm and Apiary; and Michael J. Wilson, director of Maryland Hunger Solutions.
"We wanted to bring the discussion back to a [local] context," says Helen Yuen, a spokeswoman for the Lewis museum. "What are the specific challenges that Maryland faces in ensuring everyone has access to affordable, healthy food? What can we do on the local level to help make change?"
"Soul Food Junkies" will be screened at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture at 2 p.m. April 6. Free with regular admission. For more information, call 443-263-1800 or visit rflewismuseum.org.