A Noble Mission

I’m seated across from Sadaya Lewis in the last place you’d expect to find one of our emergent chefs—at a food court of a convention center.

Florescent lights cast a harsh pallor on a quadrangle of small storefronts, all those strange franchise

Photo by Chris Casella

Photo by Chris Casella

restaurants that only seem to exist at the mall or the airport. We are cloistered in a semi-quiet corner at a round table, a generic looking “Southern” fried chicken sandwich sits in front of each of us, both untouched. We picked the chicken place because it was the only mom-and-pop of the bunch, a quaint corner stall manned by an elderly Chinese woman and who appeared to be her grandson. Buy local, right?

An unremarkable meal under any circumstance, the limp and lifeless sandwiches are even more bleak in light of whom I’m sharing them with. This is what Chef Lewis would call “a chicken issue.

You see, Sadaya Lewis knows a thing or two about fried chicken. And a great many other things about barbeque. And shrimp and grits. And jambalaya and the myriad other Dixieland delectables that we call “Southern” food. Daisy, that’s what everyone calls her, sits opposite me dressed in all purple, a regal tone that alludes to her aspiration. Dress for the job you want.

And what job does Mrs. Lewis want? She wants to be your queen.

Like most monarchs, Daisy’s path to the throne of Southern Food in Columbus was marked by battle. A war actually.

Food Court Wars, to be exact, the Food Network program hosted by celebri-chef Tyler Florence, on which Lewis appeared as a Season One contestant. The single-episode contest showcased Chef Lewis’s skill and intimate knowledge of two of the three major disciplines of Southern Food: Cajun/Creole and Soul Food.

“The first thing they told me, when I arrived to film the show, was that I couldn’t do barbeque because, you know, it’s a food court,” Lewis recalled, “Filming [reality TV] has a tight timeframe. You just can’t do real bar-b-que. Which is sad, because I’d say barbeque is my specialty.”

Hobbled, and without perhaps the strongest weapon in her arsenal, Lewis still proved herself a formidable opponent when met in open food court battle, easily dispatching the lesser “Brunch-a-holics” team. Clearly relishing the memory of culinary conquest, Lewis recalls scoring the decisive blow that led to her ultimate triumph.

“I served my grandmother’s Jambalaya. When Tyler Florence tried it, he melted. That’s exactly what good food—real Southern Food—should make you do. First they moan, then they melt.”

And what was her just reward for all of that moaning and melting? A year’s lease at the food court for her newly battle tested restaurant Modern Southern Table.

At a mall. In Zanesville.

To the victor go the spoils.

Any conquering monarch, when asked about her motivation, will respond that she did it for glory—glory for country, for her house, for her family. Lewis is no different. Her cuisine is a monument to her foremothers, an attempt at capturing “that old grandma feel.”

Her culinary education can be attributed to her own personal matriarchs—three grandmothers, each of whom embodied one of the three pillars of cooking in the South: cajun/creole, soul food, and Southern. (When asked for clarification on the latter, I was advised, despite the problematic association, to think of Paula Deen.) After her mother’s passing, a young Daisy was sent on a rotation of sorts, spending time with each of her grandmothers, practicing the three disciplines of classic Southern cuisine.

“The one thing I want people to know, is that The Modern Southern table combines all three of the South’s best foods.” This trilateral approach won over Tyler Florence and the Food Network crowd. But how would it fair in the real world? Or, if not the real world, a food court. In Zanesville.

“Our customers loved the food. Zanesville didn’t have anything like Modern Southern Table. Real, handmade Southern food. We had people who ate with us daily!”

Unfortunately, Chef Lewis, a Cleveland native, cooking in a small town because of circumstance, often felt “shut out” by the local food community. “They had their own food people who were trying to blow up. I had people tell me that I couldn’t cook something that was on the menu because that’s what they served in their restaurant. They wouldn’t even let me into the rib fest.”

Other than a loyal band of regulars, Modern Southern Table was also less than well received with the regular Zanesville diner.

“[It’s] a fast food town. They have one of the highest numbers of fast food restaurants per capita of any U.S. city. So we made everything fresh—unlike fast food, unlike the rest of the food court. So people either loved it or hated it. ‘We can’t believe we have to wait 16 minutes for chicken.’ And even though we were the same price as the rest of the food court, we were labeled ‘too expensive.’ We were in a community that didn’t have a lot of spending money, and we suffered from that. We just couldn’t compete with KFC.”

So, after 11 months, just shy of her bequeathed one-year lease at the Colony Square Mall food court, Modern Southern Table shuttered her giant pull-down metal barrier for the final time. “I still get messages from people in Zanesville. People that tell us they miss [Modern Southern Table] and that they don’t even go to the mall anymore. One lady told me she cried.”

Unfortunately, Lewis doesn’t have a lot of time to feel sympathetic for the don’t-know-what-ya-got-till-its-goners in Zanesville. She’s got a new crusade, spreading the gospel of authentic Southern fare in Columbus.

“Look around the city: you see ethnic and regional food represented fairly frequently. Somali food. Egyptian. Ethiopian food. But where can you go to get real southern cooking? There is demand here. Its just that people don’t know that they need my food yet.”

And Chef Lewis is doing everything in her power to get her food out to us, the needy, albeit somewhat uninformed masses. Her catering business, also under the Modern Southern Table banner, has seen success in bringing authentic Southern flavor to area parties, corporate functions, and weddings. She is also bringing her food to a younger audience through her company “Happy Tummies,” providing kid-friendly fresh prepared meals for school-aged eaters.

And there is of course the brick-and-mortar version of Modern Southern Table, which is currently scouting for the perfect Columbus area location.

“We’re working to find a good location that will meet out needs and find that target market for Modern Southern Table. Once we find a location we’ll begin the work of opening.”

And so it goes for Chef Lewis, equal parts evangelist and conquistador, going forth in a new land, armed with her the good news about real Southern cuisine. And in this conquest, to the Queen, we say ‘Godspeed!’

For updates on the brick and mortar location, or for catering information, visit facebook.com/modernsoutherntable.