If his physician father would have had his way, Savannah’s Chef Randall would have been Dr. Joseph Randall.
Instead of teaching Savannahians and visitors from all over the world how to prepare his famous Southern cuisine from his cooking school on Waters Avenue, he would be saving lives at Memorial Health University Medical Center across the street.
Plus, he has embarked on a mission to honor, cultivate and preserve African-American culinary history through the newly launched Edna Lewis Foundation.
Born and raised in Harrisburg, Pa., Chef Randall was one of nine children.
“They called me Little Doc,” Randall said.
Then one day, his father told him about the years of college, medical school and specialization it would take to become a doctor.
“He scared the bejeebers out of me,” said Randall. “I said, I’d be 40 before I ever got out of school, so it wasn’t something I was thinking about.“
Randall’s father died when he was only 13. Since his father’s family was in Pittsburgh, he spent summers there, often hanging out with his uncle, Richard Ross, who was a chef, caterer and restaurateur.
“I’d help out catering parties — bus tables, cut butter.”
Once Randall graduated from high school at 17, he joined the Air Force.
In 1963, he was stationed at Turner Air Base in Albany.
“In those days, if you didn’t specialize when you enlisted, you went to food service or administration,” Randall said. “Uncle Sam thought I’d make a good cook.”
Randall remembers being told that when he got ready to leave the base he’d be all right if he took a bus to Washington, D.C.
“But from Washington, D.C., to Georgia, I’d have to ride on the back of the bus,” he said. “They were very clear about the circumstances. That’s just the way it was.”
On leave in Pittsburgh at Christmas, Randall asked Congressman John C. Kunkle, who knew his late father, to help him get a transfer to another base. The congressman said he would see what he could do, and Randall went back to Georgia not thinking much about it.
Then, one day, a warrant officer called him to his office, upset because a colonel had arrived from Washington to ask why Randall was dissatisfied with the Air Force.
“Since they knew someone was watching me, they couldn’t do much,” he said.
But he was sent to general mess where he was feeding 5,000 people for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“They thought it would break my spirit,” he said, “but if I had a job to do, I’d go do it.”
Eventually, he asked for a hardship discharge and was soon back in Pennsylvania.
Newly separated from the Air Force, Randall went to apply for unemployment benefits but ended up with a job as a short-order cook.
“It was 60 hours a week, $.90 an hour,” he said.
Over the years he progressed, working in restaurants in Harrisburg and Hershey, Pa., and opened the New Hershey Motor Lodge.
Two chefs in the Harrisburg area, Robert W. Lee of the Harrisburger Hotel, and Frank Castelli of the Penn Harris Hotel, were early mentors. Randall apprenticed for both of them for two years.
Lee had worked at the Henry Grady and the Biltmore in Atlanta and opened the King and Prince Beach Club on St. Simons Island in the ’30s. He was the first African-American executive chef at a prominent hotel in the Harrisburg region.
“When people in the area refused to work for him, he sent bus and train tickets to cooks that worked for him in Georgia, and ran the hotel with an entire African-American crew that had come up under him,” said Randall.
“He taught me what every person that aspires to be a chef must learn: respect for the food, how to handle it. Proper storage and refrigeration. Nothing on the floor. Respect for the equipment.
“Respect your employees. Kitchens are small, tight areas sometimes. You’re rubbing hips and bumping shoulders. Treat people with respect. Otherwise there could be chaos. He taught me what I consider the gem from all those southern cooks — I learned to cook Southern up North.”
Many of the recipes Randall teaches at his cooking school in Savannah were developed in the Harrisburg of the ’60s — crabmeat au gratin, okra and tomatoes. Everything — salad dressings and even mayonnaise — was made from scratch.
When Lee retired, Randall went across the street to work for Castelli, a European chef who taught him haute cuisine and classical garde mange.
“He had a perch up about 10 steps in his kitchen so he could oversee the whole kitchen while sitting up there,” said Randall.
He had considered going to the Culinary Institute of America, but after working with students in Castelli’s kitchen, Randall realized “…they didn’t know what I knew and didn’t feel the need.”
For the next 10 years or so, Randall honed his craft in New York and New Jersey, including at the Cloister Restaurant, which was Mark Twain’s home and one of the top 100 restaurants in the country at the time.
By 1976 he was tired of the snow, caught a jet to Seattle and later moved to Sacramento, Calif., where he met his wife, Barbara.
“I had to fight for what I wanted,” Randall said. “I was fighting her grandmother, but I was not to be denied.”
The grandmother wore a black dress to the wedding, said Barbara Randall.
“She said she felt like she was going to a funeral,“ Barbara said. “But after the birth of our first child two years later, she came back around.”
The Randalls have three children. The oldest, J. Christopher, is a strength and endurance trainer. Kenneth is a financial adviser, real estate salesman and entrepreneur. The youngest, daughter Cari, works for a public relations firm in Atlanta.
Randall considered leaving the culinary world for a career in photography but soon began teaching cooking classes for the Sacramento Unified School District. He got his teacher certification from Berkeley and was in education from 1977 until 1989.
As executive chef for the University of Southern California, he traveled the country working with chefs to develop menus for a gourmet classic cuisine series. He opened restaurants and continued teaching at colleges and universities on the west and east coasts.
In 1993, the Randalls moved to Baltimore where he founded the Taste of Heritage Foundation to “address career-related issues impacting African-Americans in the hospitality industry.”
The foundation encourages students to be proactive in their education and training, provides an opportunity to interact with African-American chefs and restaurateurs at the Taste of Heritage dinners around the country and promotes African-American cuisine.
Randall came to Savannah by way of Columbia, S.C., in 1999 through a friend from Baltimore who was also an artist with connections to Savannah and SCAD. Soon Randall was heading SCAD’s food service program and teaching cooking classes that were booked months in advance at Livingood’s location at Eisenhower and Skidaway.
He opened Chef Randall’s Cooking School at 5409 Waters Ave. in 2000, and it isn’t unusual for former students to show up looking for their mentor.
“I encourage young people to find a chef who is the best in their town and try to get a job and work for him,” Randall said. “If you learn from the best, you get to be the best.”
One of the best African-American chefs was Edna Lewis, who had been a cook at Café Nicholson in Manhattan in the ’40s, cooking for people like Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and Gloria Vanderbilt.
She worked at the Middleton Place Restaurant in Charleston, S.C., where they still offer her dishes on the menu.
“Anybody who was anybody talked about Edna Lewis,” said Randall. “She grew up in an ex-slave community in Virginia and talked about cooking what they grew, slaughtering the hogs.
“She was the mother of the farm-to-table movement. She did for southern cooking what Julia Child did for French Food. She put southern cooking back to its rightful place among the cuisines of America.”
Randall introduced himself to Edna Lewis while she was working in New York, and they spent many days cooking together at her home in Virginia. They did their first dinner together at the Hay Adams Hotel in Washington, D.C., in 1992, and she was on the board of the Taste of Heritage Foundation.
They remained friends until she died in 2006.
The Edna Lewis Foundation grew out of a desire to honor her memory and the concern voiced by some at a minority chef’s conference a few years ago about the lack of a voice for African-Americans in the food industry.
Randall called a few chefs he knew, and the Edna Lewis Foundation was established on Jan. 15, 2012. The first fundraiser was held on her birthday at the City Club of Atlanta.
“The foundation seeks to honor African-Americans who came before us in the industry and to recognize those who are cooking and doing well today,” Randall said.
The foundation will provide educational opportunities, scholarships and the annual Edna Lewis Award of Excellence. Ambitious goals include a cooking school in Atlanta with a banquet kitchen for private dinners with guest chefs from around the country, similar to James Beard’s Foundation in New York.
For Randall’s part, he has no regrets.
“My mother taught me when you invite people into your home, they should leave happy,” he said. “People pay me to cook for them. I get to entertain them, give them a little history lesson and at the same time I get to share my food philosophy with them.
“It’s quite a life.”