Twenty-five years after Chef Joe Randall and food historian-author Toni Tipton-Martin wrote the groundbreaking “A Taste of Heritage: The New African-American Cuisine” cookbook, Randall is garnering renewed attention for the book’s induction into the James Beard Foundation Cookbook Hall of Fame.
“When I got the initial call and they said they were from the James Beard Foundation, I couldn’t imagine what it was about,” said Randall. “When she told me I had been chosen for the hall of fame for the cookbook, it was just a joy. In one sense you say finally, they’re recognizing it, but at the same time I was just appreciative and honored.”
The cookbook, comprised of 300 recipes, was one of the first to recognize the breadth of impact and influence African American cooks and chefs have had on the evolution of American cuisine. In addition to his own recipes amassed across a 60-year career, Randall included insights and dishes from pioneers such as Edna Lewis, Leah Chase and Patrick Clark.
“There was a book called ‘[Creole Feast] 15 Master Chefs Reveal Their Secrets’ about African-American chefs in New Orleans,… and it was the first book I saw with an African-American chef on the cover,” said Randall, “but I wanted to extend it beyond just New Orleans.”
The Dean of Southern Cuisine
“Chef Joe” is known as “the dean of southern cuisine,” yet he was born and raised in Pennsylvania. As a teen, Randall worked with his uncle Richard Ross, a restaurant owner and chef. After enlisting in the Air Force, Randall worked in flightline kitchens. He was introduced to southern cooking while stationed at Turner Field in Albany, Georgia. After the military, he returned to Pennsylvania where he continued to work in kitchens before securing an apprenticeship under Chef Robert W. Lee at the Harrisburg Hotel in the 1960s. Lee was an African American chef with a Black kitchen staff, many of whom were from the South. There, Randall learned to cook the signatures dishes for which he has become known.
Over the years, Randall has worked in restaurants and taught in culinary schools all over the country, but one of his biggest passions has been the promotion and recognition of the impact African Americans have made in the restaurant industry. In 1993, he started the African American Chefs Hall of Fame as a part of the Taste of Heritage Foundation, which became the foundation for his 1998 cookbook.
“You see many more African American chefs receiving James Beard awards. At the time that I started doing this book, my friend Patrick Clark was the first and only chef to have received a James Beard Award.”
Although Randall no longer stands near a hot stove for hours at a time, he hasn’t wandered too far away. At 76, he is a mentor and consultant for Good Times Jazz Bar and Restaurant, 107 W. Broughton St. in Savannah. When the restaurant opened in 2017, Randall helped put together a menu of items from his classical training, such as oysters Rockefeller and French onion soup as well as southern favorites like shrimp and grits, fried catfish and his personal favorite, creole seafood gumbo.