Luella’s Southern Kitchen is chef-owner Darnell Reed’s love letter to his great-grandmother, Luella Funches. Located in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood, Luella’s Southern Kitchen keeps the legacy of Reed’s great-grandmother alive through its menu of Southern cuisine.
Recognized with a Michelin Bib Gourmand every year since opening three years ago, Luella’s range of classic Southern dishes like shrimp and grits, buttermilk fried chicken and modern interpretations like crispy catfish tacos are inspired by Luella, but the cornbread is hers through and through.
When Reed tried to recreate the cornbread from taste memory years ago, something was always a little off. “I told [Luella] that my cornbread wasn’t coming out like hers, and she was like, ‘Just tell me what you’re doing and I’ll tell you where you went wrong,’” says Reed. Often the case with many family recipes, an actual written recipe with measurements for Luella’s famous cornbread didn’t exist because she knew how to make it by heart. “I went down the list and she’s like, ‘There’s where you messed up, you’re using butter.’ She told me, ‘You’re not going to get a good cornbread with butter. You need lard, you need the moisture to stay in your cornbread and it won’t stay with butter.’ So that’s when I started using lard.” Grandma knows best.
Reed began his food and beverage career at the age of 16 with the help of a high school culinary program and a dedicated teacher named Ron Martin. While a full-time student he worked at the Palmer House Hilton. By graduation Reed had a stable job as a line cook and solid experience to lean on. He was ready to enter the workforce immediately but his teacher, Mr. Martin, had other plans.
The day Mr. Martin asked Reed what he planned on doing after graduation, Reed informed him of his intention to continue working his full-time job at the hotel. Reed tells the story, “[Mr. Martin] called me shortly after and he told me, ‘I just enrolled you at Washburne, you start in September.’ And I remember asking my mom, ‘Can he do that? I told him I was done, and he’s telling me I’m going to culinary school.’ And she was like, ‘Well, he just did, so you’re going to go.’ So, that’s how I ended up going to culinary school. Because [Mr. Martin] told me he wanted me to further educate myself and I’m glad I did.” Reed still keeps in contact with Mr. Martin and thanks him often.
After graduating from Washburne Culinary and Hospitality Institute, Reed continued working at restaurants in Hilton properties throughout Chicagoland, eventually becoming an executive chef. After 18 years with the company he parted ways to open Luella’s Southern Kitchen.
Reed prides himself in keeping the majority of Luella’s menu authentically Southern. “When we first opened there was a misconception that we were [a] soul food [restaurant], and I tried to explain to people that there is a difference between Southern and soul. We serve food that’s from the Southern United States and soul would be food that was one of the first import foods that came from Africa to the United States. We try to stay as true to the South as we can,” says Reed who is a fan of food historian and Soul Food Scholar Adrian E. Miller and occasionally consults Miller for an expert’s opinion on what’s Southern or soul food.
The ingenuity of black people taking food considered throwaways and turning them into delicious Southern culinary staples inspires Reed, “We figured out ways to make it a cuisine that everyone wants now.” And Reed notices the popularity of Southern food rising. “Southern and soul are really being accepted more than I’ve ever seen before. People are understanding how important it is to American history. It’s a big part of American culture.”
Reed carries a spirit of wanting others to do well, even his competition, and he wholeheartedly disagrees with the idea of one restaurant having to fail in order for another to succeed. “There’s nothing wrong with competition because I’m competitive myself,” says Reed. He cites areas like Chinatown where clusters of Chinese restaurants thrive. “You should want [your neighbor] to succeed the way that you succeed.”
Reed considers exposure to different cultures over his years in the industry as a valuable asset. “Food is one of the few ways that you can approach conversations that you otherwise couldn’t like racial conversations,” Reed says. The South Side native encourages diners to explore other neighborhoods across Chicago, especially the restaurant gems of his former neighborhood, "Food on the South Side is underrated because people only think about negative things that happen on the South Side. People travel up north but people don’t travel down south. People have a negative idea about the South Side so they miss out on a lot."
Looking ahead, Reed sees the food and beverage industry shifting to a casual dining experience, “Casual dining is what people gravitate toward more now. In Chicago, we’ve had a lot of restaurants that have closed in the past year. But the ones that have stayed open are the ones that specialize in one thing,” he notes the longstanding success of iconic Harold’s Chicken Shack as an example. This focus on singularity and doing it well is a route Reed is considering for his next restaurant. Until then, he’ll carry the culinary traditions of the South, making his ancestors like Luella proud.
Food photo credit: Chef Darnell Reed & Chicago Food Scene