When you think of Southern food, do you think of rum? Do you think of labneh or panzanella? How about Amaro Nonino or Gruner Veltliner? These and more are laced through the menus at The Larder + the Delta, recently moved and reopened, still run by Stephen Jones.
Despite what you may think, his restaurant is Southern to the core.
Far from the South, Phoenician eaters can be forgiven for misclassifying Jones' food. “It really upsets me when people call us a soul food restaurant,” Jones says.
Traditional Southern food and soul food overlap. (Culinary thinkers attribute the differences, which would be impossible to throw into crisp focus, partly to race.) Jones doesn’t cook either. He cooks what he calls “new Southern.”
“The biggest difference for what we do and what I like to call new Southern food is technique-driven,” Jones says. “It’s more about [that and] traceability and what we’re doing, putting the ingredients first. Those ingredients are vegetables.”
Elevated Southern food has been in the national eye for several years. Chefs like Sean Brock of Husk (Charleston, Nashville) and Edouardo Jordan of Junebaby (Seattle) have won accolades for food that, from a Southern foundation, thoughtfully innovates, rising into novel constructions. These are two examples, but there are many. Jones rightly situates The Larder + the Delta within this movement.
And within, Jones is carving a niche: vegetable-centric new Southern.
“When you think of Southern food, even back to its root, it was a lot of vegetables,” Jones says. “Slaves didn’t have access to [meat], let alone seafood. That was going up to the big house.”
Jones has a thick playbook for preparing vegetables. He pickles, smokes, preserves, and dehydrates. He chars, slivers, ferments, liquefies, aerates, and cauterizes to ash. He exalts the bounty of Valley farms. The culinary jet sweeps, wheel routs, and flea flickers that he executes – like his signature Buffalo "chicken" cauliflower – call for a certain technique.
Jones is a classically trained chef. He has done stages at game-changing restaurants like Spago in Los Angeles and Alinea in Chicago. He was a sous chef at Nobu in Las Vegas. It was in Vegas at the now-defunct Bradley Ogden where his path forked toward new Southern. At The Larder + the Delta’s original incarnation in DeSoto Market, Jones cooked his style of new Southern. With its reincarnation on Portland Street, Jones’ style has gained new definition.
Jones grew up splitting time between Los Angeles and Chicago. His grandparents lived in Alabama. At one point, he rambled the South for about four months. (“My tour of the South was just eating places, asking questions, and making friends,” he says.) When visiting family, he would often spend time exploring the Mississippi Delta.
Far from the South, The Larder + The Delta is serving eye-opening southern fare to a city of Mexican food and southwestern and pizza.
Jones plates what looks like a small tree of broccoli on a creamy bed of labneh. A wet cluster of fermented mustard seeds and hail of shaved lemon rind add galvanizing flavor, and so does lavender. Before getting roasted so that florets splotch and crisp, the broccoli was brined overnight.
Shrimp toast has avocado, three kinds of corn, and radish coins edged in purple. Onion skins and other scraps are burnt to an ash and used on salads. Rather than stick to traditional soul or Southern fried chicken or chicken wings, Jones jumbles the formula and uses pickled celery, smoked bleu cheese, clarified butter, two kinds of Cutino sauces, and skips bird for cauliflower.
This is new Southern food. This is American food.
“American food is the South,” Jones says. “Everyone wants to say American food is a hodgepodge of everything, a melting pot – yeah, it’s true. But it’s not. At its core, American food is really Southern food.”
A lot of the thinking that Jones puts into his food stretches back into the old South – the South of slavery. For instance, rum is rampant on the drink menu. Rum was once the most popular spirit in America. Colonists and later early Americans associated rum with England, as rum came from British holdings in the Caribbean. During and after the Revolutionary War, rum started to decline. People didn’t want to drink spirits made by the enemy. Whiskey steadily rose.
This is the kind of historical culinary thinking that often informs what Jones terms new Southern cooking. There is an awareness of the old and a longing for the flavors of the past that pulses with the novelty.
One of the most minimally newfangled dishes that Jones cooks is his version of the Hoppin’ John, a staple of rice, beans, and peas. “The Hoppin’ John is a direct representation of slavery at the time," he says. "The only thing different we do is that we crisp the rice and make the rice crunchy.”
Jones uses Carolina Gold Rice. Carolina Gold, long ago the most popular rice in the South, declined and was all but lost until the 1980s, when rice from a seed bank was planted and propagated. Now, you can buy the variety from select heirloom grain providers, like Anson Mills out of South Carolina, as Jones does. He uses a strain of rice now that was used then.
History, technique, methods, and ingredients entwine to form Jones' fresh cooking style.
Arguably, The Larder + the Delta’s culinary play that is most in line with old Southern cooking is emphasis on not wasting, on using everything. Jones reduces scraps to vegetable ash. He makes Green Goddess dressing out of herb odds and ends.
And in a similar vein, in the spirit of preservation, he jams, jars, smokes, and pickles. He dreams of pickling like a madman, of stocking such a reserve of pickles that it will take months and months to assemble.
He wants to pickle chiles, okra, and cucumbers in many ways. He wants to pickle corn, garlic, and potatoes. He wants to pickle lemons and limes. “You can pickle anything outside of rocks,” he says.
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Though The Larder + the Delta 2.0 is just rising, it isn’t a leap to draw parallels. When considering what Jones is aiming for, Phoenix chefs come to mind who have elevated other world cuisines, like Mexican or Italian. He elevates Southern food while rolling with Fernet Branca and Fruity Pebbles, with heirloom rice and a burger that his menu says comes on a "cheap bun.”
Something new and wild is up at The Larder + the Delta, which re-opened without PR of any kind. Jones is well aware of this. “We’re trying to help elevate the Phoenix dining scene into the national spotlight,” he says. “We’re going to work hard at it.”
The Larder + the Delta. 200 West Portland Street, #101. 480-409-8520.
Tuesday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m. to midnight; Saturday 4 p.m. to midnight; Sunday 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.; closed Monday.