James Jones is pretty sure that what you think you know about soul food is all wrong.
"Soul food gets a bad rep," says Jones, the owner of His Place Eatery. "You know, when people think of soul food they always say it's fried food, it's not good for you, it's not healthy. But truthfully, soul food is one of the rare forms of cooking in a restaurant that, for all intents and purposes, is still from scratch, which means that there's a lot less additives and preservatives and things like that in the food."
The name His Place, opened in 2009, refers to Jones' faith. There are inspirational quotes painted on one wall of the modest, homey structure that's home to a menu of some of Indy's most thoughtfully concocted takes on classic dishes, but Jones doesn't attempt to evangelize when it comes to his Christianity.
Food? Well, food's a different story.
Jones, a big, affable guy whose mood seems to range from "pleasant" to "really, really pleasant" points out with a preacher's conviction that a customer ordering food in a place like his can count on knowing exactly what's in every dish. Mashed potatoes, for example: "We clean them, cook them, mash them, a little bit of salt, a little bit of butter, a little bit of cream and that's it. So you know every single ingredient that's in there. And we're not making them and holding them on a shelf and putting preservatives in them for months at a time, or bringing them out of a can or out of a box."
There's another thing that annoys Jones — stereotyping.
"I think there's a lack of understanding of what soul food is," says Jones. "A lot of people combine soul food with Caribbean food, or with all types of other cuisines that aren't necessarily soul food." James seems a little miffed by the notion that the perception of soul food is limited to either an overcooked plate of heaping greens and greasy chicken or a bucket of over-spiced gumbo.
Donniece Owens, a co-owner and the kitchen manager of Maxine's Chicken and Waffles, agrees with Jones: "You got your greens, your black-eyed peas, green beans, corn. [That stuff is] not just soul food. It's just vegetables that we cook."
Cynthia Wilson, one of the owners of Kountry Kitchen, a fixture at 19th and College Avenue, says that people are constantly asking her to "define" soul food. "It's Southern cooking," says Cynthia. "The collard greens, pinto beans, fried chicken ... our grandmothers from the South were on a shoestring budget, growing their own vegetables, raising their own chickens." For Cynthia, it's not about the food so much as the process: "soul food" is the original farm-to-fork concept. Raise the chicken, slaughter the chicken, spice the chicken, fry the chicken — all at the same address. Even though some of those steps are no longer practical in a restaurant setting, it's still the methodology of making sure every phase is carefully managed that puts the "soul" in "soul food."
For all of these cooks, when they're making soul food, they're not just heating up sides alongside a plate of rib-tips – they're spicing and simmering and smoking, spinning new takes on recipes that have been handed down over generations.
There's another stereotype that needs to be addressed: for those that haven't visited, soul food places aren't frequented by a single race alone. This is food that's designed to appeal to everybody, regardless of pigment. There's a rainbow of faces crowding these eateries at lunch hour.
Jones and his wife Shawn Marie, who've taken His Place from a failing soup kitchen to a bustling eatery at 30th and Shadeland, have cemented the restaurant's rep as a stop both for blue collar workers on their lunch breaks and big families looking for Sunday dinner after church. "We really enjoy the fact that the customer base is diverse," says Jones.
"And actually when we first set out to open one of the things we came up with is that good food is universal."
The roots of the recipes
Soul food, the roots of soul food, originates from during the slave times when the slaves were given just the scraps to cook with. They were given all the leftover foods and vegetables to prepare their own meals with. And what had happened is through creativity and resources that they kind of mended together themselves they were able to come up with food that all of a sudden the slave masters wanted; the food that they were fixing for themselves. So ... you have the slave moving into the master's homes to prepare meals the way that they were prepared for [the slaves'] families. And with that soul food was born. And that's why soul food is synonymous with the South, because of those roots.
— James Jones, His Place Eatery
Everything about Maxine's Chicken and Waffles seems to shatter stereotypes — even the location. Their bright, gleaming Downtown restaurant is, in fact, next to a gas station. "It's funny that people identify the restaurant by saying it's connected to a gas station but [people] walk in and say 'It doesn't look anything like we thought it was going to look'!" says Marlene Griffin-Bunnell, whose husband Darrell is the CEO of Maxine's parent company.
The "Maxine" in the restaurant's name refers to Maxine Redmon, who met a gent named Ollie Bunnell in 1939. They married, and the couple settled on the Southside of Indy. Maxine cooked at St. Francis Hospital for three decades while her husband Ollie toiled away at Chrysler. Maxine, charged with raising 10 kids in a four-room home, found ways to stretch the family food budget and keep things tasty. Her daughters, including Donniece, learned how to cook by watching Mom, and the girls soon began creating the recipes that would be the basis for Maxine's menu.
Isaac Wilson's family has owned Kountry Kitchen for roughly 25 years, according to Wilson's wife Cynthia. Although different family members have had control of the operation throughout its history, the tastes have remained consistent. "We try to keep the recipes as stable as possible," Cynthia says. "When the restaurant was handed from family member to family member ... we learned the recipes. They were family recipes that were handed down."
While those traditional recipes are important — and instrumental in generating repeat customers — the Wilsons weren't afraid to fix what wasn't working. "We modified the fried chicken," laughs Cynthia. "We sell a ton of fried chicken now."
James Jones, who admittedly didn't pick up a spatula until the age of 27, evolved his takes on soul food in culinary school. While working as a radio salesperson for Emmis Communications, Jones was spending his evenings studying the culinary arts at Ivy Tech. Jones says, "The very first class I had, the chef told us that in every class we'd have a project due, and if we kept the same idea through the entire course of culinary school then by the time we finished we'd have a full business plan. I came up with the idea of doing a soul food restaurant, sort of a soul food restaurant with a chef's hat on it."
Jones' concept: pay attention to every ingredient, craft the whole with the utmost care and find new spins on traditional food when warranted. Jones says, "One of the stories that people like to tell is about their mom or their aunt cooking in the kitchen. She would go in, and there is no recipe, there's just a little bit of this and a little bit of that. And if you asked them how to cook it, they couldn't tell you but they could show you." Jones set about perfecting those recipes, creating the "cookbook" for his menu, and executing every dish consistently.
Jones wasn't afraid to run recipes by the toughest possible critics: the family members he'd learned from. "I went and sat down with my wife's grandmother before she passed away and she made the best chicken and dumplings that I've ever had. I usually don't like chicken and dumplings at all." Jones convinced Shawn Marie's grandma to share her recipe, and it took Jones multiple attempts to replicate the dish before he put it on the menu. "Eventually she finally gave us the approval," says Jones, noting that now it's one of their most sought-after items.
Shawn Marie, though, is probably Jones' biggest critic — Jones' wife knows exactly how the recipes should taste. "I can spend months researching and testing out different recipes," says James. "And then finally when I present them to Shawn Marie and she'll try it and she's like 'Nahhhh.' She has the annoying talent of remembering exactly how something is supposed to taste."
Maxine's owners faced a different challenge: keeping the recipes consistent as the number of diners have gone from a single family to hundreds of people. Owens says, "[When] we first originally opened up we had a chef come in and help us as far as making bulk meals. Originally we [could] do singles, but he came in and actually did our recipes for bulk meals."
The family business and the business of family
A soul food restaurant is the ultimate mom-and-pop shop. Cynthia Wilson, who left Ford Motor Company for the restaurant business after husband Isaac retired from Ford and asked her to join him, laments: "People say 24/7? It could be 48/7 if there were that many hours in a day.
"You have to be willing to work with your employees, you have to be willing to work with the public and you have to be willing to sacrifice. We have a lot of our customers asking (me and Isaac) 'Do you all ever take vacations?' "
The true key to success for a soul food joint? Longevity. These aren't flash-in-the-pan, trendy places, but restaurants that build on a returning customer base that brings in new diners by word of mouth. Jones says, "A lot of our customers are really family. I tell my customers all the time that if you really enjoy the food just tell other people about us ...We have lots of customers that send their friends and family, and when they have friends and family come out of town they make it a point to bring them over here."
Word of mouth marketing has been critical for Kountry Kitchen over the decades, as has the star power of some of its clientele: the website documents visits from the likes of Tony Dungy, Eric Gordon and even Barack Obama. Jones has had some celebs drop in, too: former Colts Coach Jim Caldwell, Greg Oden and other sports notables, but "we don't have pictures up with famous people up everywhere," says Jones. "That's just kind of our approach, just come in and enjoy it."
Jeffrey Owens, one of Maxine's owners, says, "None of us has ever been affiliated with restaurants. It's a lucrative business, but it's a hard business too." Additionally, the family concedes that draping a Belgian waffle with three big fried chicken wings isn't exactly a traditional "soul food" dish, but, according to Jeffrey, "You got to have a niche. You know, because anybody can open a restaurant, but you've got to have a niche."
Beyond that niche, another key to Maxine's success is their business model: operate the place debt-free. Says Donniece, "The financing basically came from the four owners putting in their own dollars and putting in their blood, sweat and tears into the business. And our basic concepts were pay your bills as you go and don't go borrow any money."
So after five years, does Marlene feel like Maxine's is "out of the woods"?
"Oh, we still don't know if we're out of the woods yet. The first year was lots of surprises. Two owners were still working and two of the owners were retired. The idea of what it was going to take was a complete surprise. But what really surprised us was the food critics came out really early, and they wrote articles about us."
Those articles were positive, and it helped Maxine's catch on with a Downtown lunch crowd looking for something beyond a submarine sandwich. For Kountry Kitchen, consistent quality over two decades is the ticket to success. Jones has a different take on what keeps people coming back to His Place.
"When you go through our menu I want you to taste something and fall in love with it and come back next time and fight yourself and say, 'I really want the meatloaf I had last time but, man, that catfish sounds good.'
"I want to make every dish so good we kind of have to force customers to try something else."
SPECIALTIES OF THE HOUSE
Kountry Kitchen: Two of the recipes that Cynthia and Isaac Wilson have modified since taking over the restaurant are the fried chicken and the meatloaf. Kountry Kitchen's sandwich board is extensive, but if you're planning on feeding anywhere from eight to 25 people, check out their "Family-Style" menu.
Maxine's Chicken & Waffles: Ok, this seems obvious, but the folks behind the scenes all have their own individual preferred dishes beyond what's advertised on the shingle. For Donniece Owens, it's pan-fried chicken; for Marlene Griffin-Bunnell it's fried catfish, and for Jeffrey Owens, it's the ultimate comfort food, "mac and cheese. See, these are dishes I was raised on as a kid."
His Place Eatery: James Jones keeps individual slices of meatloaf moist by sautéing each cut when it's ordered. If you order ribs or tips, you're in for a real treat: Jones has concocted a rub that, coupled with a slow-smoking process, makes for a dish so tasty the mopping sauce is served on the side. Says Jones, "You can eat them just like they are out of the smoker and they taste really good."
Editor's note: First, we're certain we've missed a couple of gems, so give us the heads up on Twitter @NUVO_net. Additionally, we didn't include places that focus solely on BBQ or Cajun food. We love ya, Judge's, Hank's and Yats, but we'll chat you up again some other time.