Welcome to Industry Talks, where Eater shines the spotlight on Atlanta chefs, bartenders, sommeliers, and restaurant owners to provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their world.
“I’m extremely inspired by art. You eat with your eyes, in a sense, so you want things to be very beautiful and very well put together,” Atlanta chef Bella Jones says. “But the trick to that is something can look good, but not necessarily taste good, so you want the senses to match. If it looks beautiful, you want it to taste beautiful. African American cuisine, soul food, can be done in a very beautiful way.”
This is part of the premise behind Jones’ upcoming downtown Atlanta restaurant Liz and Leon’s, opening this fall along historic Hotel Row.
Jones started cooking when she was nine. It’s something she’s always wanted to do. For Jones, cooking and food are integral to her personal history, first sparked by watching and helping her grandmother in the kitchen growing up. One of her first childhood memories of cooking with her grandmother was picking collard greens from the garden for Thanksgiving dinner.
Originally from Chicago, Jones attended culinary school at the Art Institute of Houston. At the beginning of her career, she worked as a personal chef for various athletes. Sports brought her to Atlanta — she was recruited by the hospitality group running the food program at Turner Field in Summerhill (now home to Georgia State University football) to work at one of the high-end clubs at the Braves stadium.
Not feeling satisfied as a corporate chef, Jones eventually moved on and landed a position at Kevin Rathbun Steak. It’s here, Jones says, she began to conceptualize her own restaurant — a high-end steakhouse merging her love of food and sports. But a trip to the Aiken-Rhett House in Charleston, South Carolina, an antebellum mansion once home to Governor William Aiken, Jr., altered Jones’ route. The first stop on the tour of the home is one of the kitchens and the basement where enslaved people worked and prepared meals for the family.
“That energy was just so surreal.” Jones says. “These people were making these amazing meals for these families and couldn’t even taste the food they were cooking. They couldn’t eat it. They couldn’t make it for their own families.”
This experience at the Aiken-Rhett House pushed Jones to change direction with her future restaurant. She wants it to have a much larger impact on the Black community in Atlanta by telling the stories behind African American food with a fresh perspective. Enter Liz and Leon’s, which will also include a cocktail bar on the lower level called Sweet Gigi’s.
“As an African American chef, food is just important to my culture, in general. Food is the one thing my ancestors were able to control in their lives,” Jones says. “They were controlled from enslavement all the way to the Jim Crow era. The one thing that gave them a sense of freedom and a sense of who they were and who they are, and who we are today, is food.”
Soul food as always heavy, fried, or smothered are misconceptions, Jones says, pointing to its roots in West African cooking, which includes many vegetable, fish, and lean meat stews, and former enslaved people after emancipation who were farming the land and eating fresh foods grown within each season.
Jones describes Liz and Leon’s as a culinary love letter to her grandmother, Elizabeth, and soul food. But the restaurant also celebrates Black chefs and artists who came before Jones and continue to inspired her cooking. For example, one of the signature dishes at Liz and Leon’s — applesauce and chicken fried — is inspired by a poem of the same name written by early 20th century African American poet Effie Waller Smith.
“In the poem, she is talking about how she missed her mother’s fried chicken and apple sauce, and how that after emancipation, a lot of the Black Americans were starting to learn different techniques and be a little bit fancier in their sauces,” Jones says. “She just missed this apple sauce and chicken dish that her mother would make every Sunday.”
The dish at Liz and Leon’s features fried chicken with an apple, basil, and thyme chutney and an apple gastrique over warm, homemade apple sauce.
As a woman in the culinary industry, Jones says she’s accustomed to being underestimated and even bullied. It wasn’t unusual, she says, for her to be the only women in the restaurant kitchen, and the only Black woman. She now uses these experiences and her successes in the restaurant industry to encourage young Black chefs to keep going and remain confident in themselves and their food.
“We stand on the shoulders of so many African American culinarians and chefs and cookbook writers who paved the way for us to be able to say, ‘Yes, I’m going to run a restaurant. I’m going to be a James Beard award winner. I am going to be one of the top restaurants and putting the Black face back on the cuisine that we created’,” says Jones.
“Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do it. And if they do, I’m just around the corner in Atlanta. You can come work for me.”
Get to know more about chef Bella Jones
Who inspires you as a chef?
My grandmother. She’s the namesake of the restaurant. She inspires me the most because she actually taught me how to cook, she taught me how to be in love with our ingredients and what feels like home to me. I idolize Edna Lewis. Leah Chase for opening up a fine dining restaurant in the 1940s in the Treme neighborhood [of New Orleans]. I look up to people like Ivy Fisher and Melinda Russell, they were the first Black women to write cookbooks and self-published cookbooks. And of course, the first fine dining chef of this country, James Hemings.
Favorite off-the-clock meal to make at home
Cacio e pepe. It’s a [three-ingredient] dish. It’s super quick to make.
Favorite restaurant in Atlanta
Cooks and Soldiers. I have never had a bad experience. It’s always fresh. It’s always fun. You can get the same dish every time you go and it’s going to taste exactly the same.
Favorite restaurant while traveling
Del Frisco’s [Double Eagle Steakhouse] in Houston. It’s one of those corporate restaurants that gets it right in every city I go to.
Future plans in restaurants
We’re going to be starting with Liz and Leon’s. I have a couple other concepts. I’m going to be working on a very small, high fine dining restaurant called Gemini, and, of course, my steakhouse, and maybe a brunch restaurant.
The first [cookbook] I’m going to write is called “My Multicultural Kitchen” because I am a biracial African American woman. I’m Puerto Rican and African American and Italian. The cookbook talks about my different cultures [that of food] and how these three cuisines can pair very well together.
What do you want to see more of in the Atlanta dining scene?
I want to see more Michelin-style restaurants, restaurants where you pay $200 a person and you do 15 courses. I really enjoyed Mujo. It’s the new sushi spot by the people who own Cooks and Soldiers that is like 12 seats. You literally have to get online on the first day of every month at 10 a.m. to get seats. I want to see more high-end, smaller, specialized restaurants in Atlanta. I think we have the demographic for it.
Underrated chef or chef to watch in Atlanta
Me, of course.
The responses above were lightly edited for brevity and clarity.