By Donnell Suggs
Chef Todd Richards stepped out of the kitchen at Richard’s Southern Fried, a storefront-style restaurant amongst the many other dining options at Krog Street Market wearing a thin, tan jacket, T-shirt and jeans. Formerly the executive chef at White Oak Kitchen and Cocktails, and before that, holding similar positions at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, The Shed, and The Pig and Pearl at Atlantic Station, Richards, from initial impressions, comes across as a man very comfortable with his surroundings. Recently married, he is focusing his energies on Southern Fried, which opened in the summer of 2016 and is doing quite well. “Business is fantastic. Krog Street is a really unique place. It’s really a food-focused place. In terms of food halls, it is a true food hall,” says Richards. “You come here for food, you come here to eat and to socialize and be with your friends, and as far as Richard’s Southern Fried — it’s one of those unique things that can go anywhere.”
But the signature chicken sandwich offered at Southern Fried is one of the unique experiences that can only be had there. With pimento cheese, chow chow, lettuce and pickles, this is not your ordinary chicken sandwich. In fact, nothing on the menu at Southern Fried is traditional. “I am a modernist in the truest sense of the word,” he says. “I wanted to start anew with something familiar and chicken is one of those foods that speak to all cultures,” says Richards of why he opened his own shop — a fried chicken restaurant in the south of all things. “Name a culture without a chicken dish,” he says. I can’t. There is also the fact that the chicken at Richard’s is gluten-free, something that he worked on to satisfy his customers, the ever-changing eating habits of Atlantans and his personal sensibilities.
Richard’s fried chicken recipe was developed during his time as the executive chef at the Ritz-Carlton in 2011, where he and his staff won consecutive fried chicken competitions. “Well, this recipe must be pretty good,” muses Richards. The clamor for his recipe grew so great that he eventually started having a “Wednesday night fried chicken night.” Richards credits the popularity of his fried chicken to its versatility. “It pulls from a lot of different nationalities. It doesn’t matter if you’re Scandinavian, Black, Mexican, from Vietnam everyone has that kind of feeling from it.”
Originally from the Midwest, Richards came to Atlanta in 1993 inspired by the late chef Darrell Evans and other local chefs. “In the beginning, Evans was the probably the biggest influence,” says Richards of the Columbus, Ga.-born Evans who was famous for, amongst many things, being the first African American to represent the United States Culinary Olympic Team as well as his time as the executive chef at Spice, Anthony’s and at the Occidental Grand.
Richards credits his early culinary leanings to watching cooking shows as a kid on Saturday mornings with his grandmother like ‘Iron Chef’ and shows starring Julia Childs, Justin Wilson and the Galloping Gourmet. “There has been a food culture in our family for quite a long time,” says Richards.
He wasn’t always going to be a chef. His mother, a biologist, and father, a data processor, always pushed education and worldliness with Richards, who later became a semi-finalist in 2013 for the James Beard Award Best Chef Southeast. “I think my dad always wanted me to be more of a litigator. But my parents were both creative people and being a chef is both about having that analytical mind and understanding numbers and science, and also the creative mind of seeing how things react, how food works and how things taste.”
There is a new restaurant opening in metro Atlanta every month; some might say every week. By most accounts, that means there is one closing at nearly the same rate. Richards, who has a new cookbook, “Soul: From Collard Greens,” plans to have one of the restaurants in the city that remains open. “We can be more diverse in our approach,” he says of the ever-changing Atlanta eating culture. “It’s starting to evolve out of being just a shrimp and grits town while starting to give a voice to many voices.” Buford Highway restaurants, he explains, are equally celebrated as Busy Bee’s Cafe and Bacchanalia.
“There’s a little bit of wait and see at this point,” says Richards in regards to possibly expanding the Richard’s Southern Fried brand to further swell the city’s diverse offerings. “With expansion you have to be careful,” he says. As to expanding to cities out of state Richards says, “I don’t put limits on anything.”