The Heart Of The Southern Table

On day one I put on my chef's coat and it was like I had butterflies. It was the first time in my life I wasn't worried about who my partner was, or when I might meet my Prince Charming, or what I was going to do this weekend. It was the first time I was excited to get up in the morning because of the work I was doing, and not somebody swooping in and saving the day somehow. It has felt that way every single day since I made the decision to let food be the focus of my career. It's felt like a gift.

Damaris Philips

On day one I put on my chef’s coat and it was like I had butterflies.

I was raised by parents who were both really good cooks. We ate at home a lot, and so from the time we were little we helped with dinner. Every night we'd have dinner ready for my parents when they came home. So food has always been very central to my family and my life. In college, like everyone, I was trying to find out how to be a grown-up. I studied a lot of stuff. I kept switching: early childhood education, then I was going to be a teacher, then I was going to do set design, then I was going to be a journalist, and I was going to work in communications and marketing, and then I wanted to go to fashion design school. I was really all over the place and didn't stick with any of that, but I always stuck with cooking.

I always worked in restaurants, always cooked. I really love the front and back of the house. I love the industry of a restaurant or of a cafe. With how much of our social life is centered around food, I like being a part of that. I like being able to make people's day either start well or make people feel important and heard. My favorite chef is a woman named Coby Ming, a chef in Louisville. I find her to be the most wonderful chef. She has this talent for finding talent in people and celebrating that talent. She's not made smaller by somebody else's greatness. For me, I've always hoped that, at some point, that is how I am as well.

Damaris Phillips. Image by Stephanie Mullins

Damaris Phillips. Image by Stephanie Mullins

My father passed away from a heart attack. He was overweight, and the way he ate really impacted his health. So it has always been hard trying to make food that is delicious and is a celebration of Southern food — and is also not damaging to us. It's difficult, when we have a world where our food is now a way to reward ourselves, and our food is intrinsically tied to our social life and the good life. It's how you know you succeeded. That's been really interesting, trying to remain true to the story that I want to tell with food and also make delicious food. It's not always the story that people want to hear. What is lost about the Southern table is that the table was not heavy with meat. The table was heavy with vegetables because of the agriculture, because of the availability, and because everyone could have a garden in their backyard. We make greens now, and people put meat in them, but that is just a flavoring agent. For a long time, an abundance of meat would not have been the centerpiece at a Southern table. It would have been an abundance of green beans and greens, and cole slaw and corn — and so that has been a lot of me wanting to start that conversation with people. Southern food is absolutely barbecue, but it's also sweet potato casserole. It is also collard greens. It is food from a gas station that has the best biscuits. It's all reinvention of the lunch box food. It's also people who are combining their Korean heritage with now their Southern roots. It's really exciting to get to show people that.

When I was living in Seattle, I was watching "Food Network Star," and I said, "I'm going to go on that show," because I thought I could do food television. I had already taught myself to bake at that point. I was already baking at a cupcake place, and so I moved back to Louisville and went to culinary school. From there, I started teaching. The teaching portion of my career was wonderful. It made me really understand food and why food works the way it does. It helped me be able to approach food in a way that I could teach everybody to cook. Everybody has a different skill set, has a different talent, and a different reason for cooking, but being able to teach and for six years to be teaching the same classes allowed me to really be able to hone that skill of teaching all different people. I now do an in-the-kitchen show with Bobby Flay called "The Bobby and Damaris Show" that allows us to have a little more of a talk aspect. I also do a show with a man named Rutledge Wood, where we travel around the South introducing those cuisines of the South. 

People have a very set idea of what Southern food is, especially when they are not living in the South. It is so important for people to see how ever-changing, how progressive, how culturally rooted Southern cuisine is. There is this very beautiful transformation that changes through every generation with food, where people make it their own. So I wanted to show people those stories and wanted to share with people what I consider the real South, all the highs and all the lows.

My husband is a vegetarian and I was not a vegetarian, so it was really, really difficult in the beginning of our relationship. Honestly, it wasn't about eating food. It was trying to understand, if we move forward, how do you build a household where the people eat two totally different foods? Do you make two meals each night? How do you raise your kids? How do you set up your refrigerator? What pans do you use? All this is stuff that you just take for granted, and for me I just didn't want to do it. For a long time, we just didn't talk about it. I ate a lot of Indian food, Ethiopian food, a bunch of tofu, a lot of Asian food. We just stayed away from what we think of as Southern cuisine or New American cuisine.

The truth is, there is nothing to eat at Southern restaurants. And then I got mad about it. I mean, I don’t care, but when you love somebody you want them to have something besides a green salad to eat. For me, I started to look at the real history of meat in Southern food. How can I celebrate all the foods that I grew up eating in a way that I can share with my husband? How can I make food that everyone at the table can enjoy? How can I make one meal? So I wrote my first cookbook, called "Southern Girl Meets Vegetarian Boy." We refer to it as a "mixavore" cookbook. It's not a vegetarian cookbook, but it's vegetarian friendly. All the sides are vegetarian, of course, and all the desserts are vegetarian, of course, and then they have vegan options. For the entrees we took 25 classic southern recipes that were important to me and my growing up, and you turn the page and there is the vegetarian version.

Southern food is absolutely barbecue, but it’s also sweet potato casserole. It is also collard greens. It is food from a gas station that has the best biscuits. It’s all reinvention of the lunch box food. It’s also people who are combining their Korean heritage with now their Southern roots. It’s really exciting to get to show people that.

It took me a while. But the world of vegetarian food has changed even since he and I started dating. What you can find at a grocery store looks totally different now. It takes a while, but it is a real source of pride for me, really being able to address those questions. I used to be like, "Oh, I just don't care." I mean I definitely wanted the animals to be treated well, and I would buy from local farmers, but in my head I was like, "I don't care if something isn't alive because of what I am eating." And then I realized the words I was using: I don't care. If I don't care, then why don't I just not eat the meat? So it was me really addressing some of those questions that you have about what you eat and why you eat it. How can I make it in a way that is a total grey area? Sometimes I eat meat; sometimes I don't. I think more and more people are out there that are at the beginning stages of that path to thinking about it more critically: "What do I eat, and why do I eat it?"

Damaris's new book, Southern Girl Meets Vegetarian Boy. Image by Stephanie Mullins

Damaris's new book, Southern Girl Meets Vegetarian Boy. Image by Stephanie Mullins

One of my greatest challenges was to move from being a person who was not in the public eye to being a person who is now in the public eye. It was very hard. It was very hard to go from someone who doesn't have any social media to someone that can write about what your voice sounds like on TV. I didn't do great at first. I wasn't very balanced the first year. It felt completely different, and I had no experience with it. TV has this amazing way of making you think that it's the real world. I worked really hard to not get swept up into the noise. There can always be constant distractions, and the hardest thing was being able to eliminate distraction and being able to work when I was working — and to turn it off completely when I wasn't. People tell you, "It's a young man's game; you have to strike while the iron is hot." Everything is a sprint. So the whole goal was to slow it down to a marathon and approach it like this is going to be work for life. Sometimes it's going to be really great and I'm going to be really busy and be really successful, and other times I'm not going to be as successful. It's going to be part of this marathon in TV with food. When you're making a show, it's what's going on, this is your one chance, this is your dreams coming true, and it piles on all of this gravity to your job. Then you realize, oh wait, it's still just my job. It's not real. I always say it's not real, but it is real. It's real for a lot of people. It's really happening; it's just not the norm. What's real is the people that you love and your family. It's how you spend your Saturday nights, and it’s the difference that you make. And it's the people you can call when you're having a really bad day. And as much as I want to keep doing this work, and as much as I absolutely love it, more important is always going to be my family and my friends and being a good friend and a good sister.

At the end of the day, it’s a great job. I love it every day and am proud of the work that I get to do — but food started for me as a central piece to our family, and if I lose that then my meaning for doing it is gone.

For a woman, of course, it's hard to go into a kitchen that is always going to be 90% men. It just is. It is always going to be hard for women to climb the ladder. We're trying to climb the ladder, and there are not endless rungs at the top. In order for someone to climb up to the top, someone else has to step down and be OK with that. What I find so fascinating is that people question my husband more than they question me. It's a balance to remain in what we think of as gender roles of femininity, being in a world that traditionally is masculine. That's difficult to navigate, but the truth is, I believe now more than ever that as women we're not going to be able to change things for the way we want to be seen or the goals we want to have until we are willing to change how we see men. And as a society how we do that? If something as little as whether my husband can eat meat or not can bring his sexuality into question, what does that say about the rigid ideals of masculinity that we have for men? For me, I want women to do great things; I also want men to be able to great things. I think the more we start addressing being able to give men back emotion, to give men access to not being the breadwinner, the more we can focus on evening it out. We women want to be able to move into a role that is much more career driven. That's what we want. We also have to allow men that chance to move into a role that is much more emotionally family centered, and so that's what I try to do in kitchens. If the only thing we're giving men is to be masculine, that's it, then they have to be the provider; they are not allowed to be kind, because kind is not seen as masculine. When that's all they are allowed, of course they are going to cling to the one place where it is acceptable in society: those ideals, those past ways of doing things. We are having these discussions on feminism; I also want to have those discussions on the other side. As long as we have this double standard, it's going to be a challenge to change things.

If there would be a way to say to moms and dads and to girls out there, just develop some hobbies and just do it for the love of it. When you find something that you love and you just like doing, everything else will follow. Everything will follow when you're just doing something that you just like to do. Because whether or not you make money at it, you're going to enjoy doing it. And whether or not you're successful at it, you're still going to do it anyway. Money and success, they don't really have that much to do with your happiness in a real way.

Damaris and her husband, Darrick, cooking in the kitchen. Image by Stephanie Mullins

Damaris and her husband, Darrick, cooking in the kitchen. Image by Stephanie Mullins

Damaris is a chef, the host of Southern at Heart, and co-host of new shows Southern & Hungry and The Bobby and Damaris Show on the Food Network. She is also the 2013 winner of Food Network Star. Phillips appears on several other shows as either competitor or judge: Guy's Grocery Games, Cooks vs. Cons, Bakers vs. Fakers, Celebrity Food Fight, and others. From Louisville, Kentucky, Phillips graduated from Jefferson Community and Technical College with a degree in culinary arts. One of five kids, Damaris learned to cook at an early age for her large family. Damaris uses her wit and her traditional Southern cuisine to pack a one-two punch in the kitchen.

Recipe: Corn Bread and Sweet Milk

Words: Damaris Phillips