Gee Smalls, an Atlanta resident since 1995, was born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina. Smalls is proud of his heritage, his identity, and his food. He and husband Juan Smalls own and operate Virgil’s Gullah Kitchen & Bar; a welcome new addition to the limited and oft-changing dining options in College Park. However, its arrival has the makings of being hugely significant to the culinary future of not only the Tri-Cities [College Park, East Point, Hapeville] in south metro Atlanta, but throughout greater Atlanta, too.
Gullah Geechee cuisine comes from the very first African-Americans who arrived, enslaved, on the South Carolina coast. Theirs is a culture which has voluntarily isolated itself from the mainstream American identity for generations. As a result, Gullah Geechee people are known for having a strong sense of self-identity and pride in their ability to sustain a separate culture. If there’s a downside to this separation, it’s that most Americans are just now becoming aware of this deeply-rooted and richly-flavored food. But, it’s also not stopping people familiar with Gullah Geechee cuisine from judging the food at Virgil’s.
“We have at least one person a day that comes in here and tries to test my culture,” Smalls says. “We’re a very sensitive group of people.”
Smalls’s smile expresses his genuine happiness to prove his bona fides to those who claim Gullah Geechee ancestry, or to further inform fans of the food who come to the restaurant with set expectations.
“It is the first black culture in America, and something we’re very protective over. Now that people are starting to talk about Gullah Geechee, they want to know the people behind it...people have capitalized off the Gullah Geechee culture,” Smalls claims. “They [grocery stores] actually have some grits called Geechie Boy Grits, [made] by an old white man,” he continues. “When you’re in a society where there are culture vultures all over the place, I understand where they’re coming from. They want to hear me talk, to make sure I’m authentic to the culture. ‘Who cookin’ dat food?’”
Virgil’s has piqued the curiosity of Charleston chef Benjamin “BJ” Dennis, nationally recognized as an ambassador of Gullah Geechee cuisine. For years, Dennis has lead the conversation to push and popularize Gullah Geechee food. He discovered Virgil’s via social media, and hopes to come to Atlanta this fall to dine at the Smalls’s restaurant.
“This is what I wanted to see. I don’t want to be the only one preaching or talking about the [Gullah Geechee] narrative. We all have our viewpoints and vantage points of Gullah cuisine,” Dennis says. “We’re a vegetable culture, and we seem to lose that a lot. I’m a big proponent of fresh vegetables and seasonality. I’m just glad to see this coming out right now. I’m very happy.”
One modern day challenge Gullah Geechee food faces is how it looks. It’s not the most Instagram-friendly cuisine. Most dishes are rice-based, single-pot recipes and packed with flavor rather than presentation. It remains as such at Virgil’s. Smalls did choose bright white tableware to allow the rice, peppers, and meats and seafood to pop off the plate. The result is a more elegant interpretation of Gullah Geechee food; its legacy rooted in survival.
“He [Gee] was adamant about preserving the integrity of the dishes. He wanted to maintain that and be true to the culture in that way,” Juan Smalls explains. “While it is elevated, it is still that same down-home food, just presented in a way that’s for a restaurant. But, the taste is definitely there.”
As Virgil’s prepares for its grand opening celebration Tuesday, July 16, the couple gave Eater Atlanta a peek at five must-try dishes featured on the menu.
“Crab rice is very authentic to our culture because our ancestors came from Central and West Africa. We eat a lot of seafood because we’re on the coast; we caught our own food, killed our own food, all those things,” explains Smalls. “We put crab and rice together. It’s made by sautéing bacon, which causes it to be crispy, then we add red peppers with onions and sauté those until they’re tender.”
Smalls notes there’s a difference between Gullah Geechee crab rice and Asian versions of the same dish (BeltLine restaurant Bully Boy offers an Japanese omurice-style blue crab fried rice.) He says while similar, the Asian interpretation of the rice dish calls for sesame oil. Rice is quickly cooked over high heat. Gullah rice hits the pot cold after being sautéd. Crab is then added and mixed with the rice.
Jambalaya fans will enjoy the depth of flavors cooked into this West African Jollof-inspired rice dish. Rice is cooked in a tomato base with bacon, sausage, green peppers, and onions and creates what Smalls describes as “a signature dish in Gullah Geechee culture.”
Shrimp and Crab Gravy
“Our shrimp and grits is brown gravy — gravy like you would do with chicken — not creamy or tomato-based. It’s very savory,” Smalls says. Shrimp, crab meat, bacon, red and green peppers, and onions are served over jasmine rice, then topped with brown gravy.
That’s not a typo, that’s Gullah Geechee. It’s even described on the menu as being “tenda”. “A lot of people are not familiar with eating shark meat. It’s a different type of fish,” explains Smalls. “I tell people it’s almost the consistency of a chicken nugget but, it has an amazing taste. No bones [in the nuggets], very lean and tasty, seasoned, floured, and fried.”
Chucktown Chewie Sundae
Not to be confused with the candy Charleston Chew, “chewies” are Charleston’s version of brownies, made with light brown sugar. “It just made sense to be our premiere dessert. We top it with salted caramel ice cream, whipped cream, nuts, powdered sugar, and chocolate drizzle.”
Take a look at the menu for Virgil’s Gullah Kitchen:
Open Monday and Tuesday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Wednesday and Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Saturday, 3 p.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m. to 12 a.m.
3721 Main Street, College Park. virgilsgullahkitchen.com.