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Chef Jacob Sessoms Found The Gift of Southern Cooking Through This Famous Cookbook

a person sitting on a bench

When Jacob Sessoms moved to Asheville, NC from his hometown of Nashville, TN in 1993, he knew he wanted to be a chef. But unfortunately, at the time, there were no schools in the area where he could learn the necessary skills.  

“So, I went to the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan and worked in the city,” Jacob says. “It was at a time when I could teach my chef and sous-chefs in the restaurants I worked at in New York how to make biscuits because they just didn’t know.”

It was around this same time when his dad gave him The Gift of Southern Cooking by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock. It’s the cookbook Jacob credits as his most influential inspiration for learning and honing his craft. “He gave me that cookbook when I was 21,” he explains. “My dad is why I’m a cook.”

The History of Southern Food

In addition to depicting the delicate ways Edna Lewis treated food, this cookbook gives the reader insights to Edna’s life and culinary backstory. Edna Lewis started cooking in a guesthouse in Savannah, GA before she made her way to Atlanta and cooked in black-only restaurants for years. This is where she taught Scott Peacock, an award-winning chef of American Southern cuisine, how to cook.

“This was the mid-80s, and new Southern food was born really out of Scott’s relationship with Edna,” Jacob says. “It’s very important we recognize how important black culture is to food in general—but especially to our food in the South. Most people don’t want to acknowledge that.”

Jacob says his dad was always exploring the idea of the contradiction of being a Southern white male and being conscientious of the impact they’ve had on culture and racism in the South. 

“That’s why that cookbook’s so important to me,” he explains. “Also, the food’s great in it.”

a man sitting on a table

The Way Edna Treated Food

Jacob says he used The Gift of Southern Cooking to bridge the gap between Southern food and New American cuisine when he opened Table, his first restaurant in Asheville. He says he also paid close attention to Edna’s advice on how to treat food. 

In her cookbook, Edna focuses heavily on preservation and canning with a very simple approach. “Take a few good ingredients and just don’t screw ‘em up,” Jacob suggests. “When vegetables are good, just treat them simply and let them show their flavor.”

He says there isn’t anything necessarily groundbreaking or avant-garde in the cookbook, but that it explores real Southern food and what farm-to-table eating is at its core. “It’s how you’re supposed to eat,” Jacob explains. “I think that we, especially in Southern food, forget how important that is.”

The Way Jacob Treats Food

Jacob has always known how he wanted to be treated as a chef and how chefs would be treated in the kitchens where he leads. 

“The machismo culture, the ‘you’re not working hard enough’ culture, is wrong,” Jacob says. “I’m going to go take a run. I’m going to hang out with my family. I want to work around what is healthy, and I wish that that was an acceptable way to be in this career.”

And now, with four restaurants under his belt—Table, The Hangout, a popular restaurant in Alabama he helped open, Cultura, which he designed the menu for and helped open, and All Day Darling, which opened in Asheville in May—Jacob knows exactly what he wants to do when it comes to the food he serves.

Thanks to advice and help from Edna, along with his personal history with Southern cuisine, the food served at Table is what he calls Seasonal New American cuisine. 

“For me, food was always an exploration of both my roots as a Southerner and the big wide world,” he says. “Food is sustenance and necessary, but it’s also this art and the backbone of culture.”