Originally created 10/10/01

A Southern chef with a different take on food



Wendell Price Jr. doesn't like fried chicken.

Some might consider that unusual for a Southern chef, but Price would rather deep-fry a lobster. If he does fry a chicken, he'd probably cook it the way he said he did for Elizabeth Taylor.

"I fried (it) with a lot of dried thyme in the batter," he said. "Soaked it in milk and made it really rich."

Taylor loved it, he said.

Price, 33, the owner and executive chef of a new restaurant in Memphis, The Ivy Bistro, has cooked for many stars since he opened his first restaurant, Ya Mama's in Pomona, Calif. Since then, he's been a partner in other restaurants, including Cafe SoHo in Houston, and catered meals for celebrities. He worked on the book "Cooking With Heart & Soul" (G.P. Putnam's Sons, $27.95) with Isaac Hayes. And a TV cooking show featuring Price is in development.

"He's a very talented guy," Hayes said from his home in Jersey City. "He knows his craft. I was down in Houston, went to his restaurant down there, had dinner. Gorged myself. The food was great."

Price prepared a dinner party for Elise Neal, who has a role on the TV sitcom "The Hughleys."

"His food was delicious," Neal said in a phone interview. "He did crab and appetizers, and my setting was very Bohemian. Everybody absolutely loved all of the food. His presentation was really great. I would definitely love to maybe work with him again if I ever had another party or any 5/8 thing like that. He was very entertaining."

Price has star quality with his good looks and boundless energy. He says he likes making money and admits people either like him or think he's arrogant.

But Price is also on a mission - he wants to set an example. There are a lot of black cooks, he said, but not black chefs.

"I'm trying to go against the grain of everything that our life as being in the back of the kitchen has been indicative of. So, my whole thing is ... try (to) do something of excellence that's not there."

A native of Houston, Price began cooking as a child. "I grew up on a stool watching my grandmother make fig preserves, jams. I saw that every single morning."

His grandmother would go back to bed while the fruit was cooking. Price turned off the stove when the mixture was done. After it cooled, he drained it.

From his grandmother, Price learned to make everything, tea cakes to gumbo.

Price lived a middle class life with his parents. His father was an underwater welder. Price and his friends staged cookovers; they'd make jambalaya and shrimp etouffee. "They (his friends) were Cajun, so we always did something really big. And we had a pool, so it was a house party every weekend. (There) was always food around me."

When Price was 17, he met Dean Corgey, regional vice president of the Seafarers' International Union. Corgey told him he could change his life and encouraged him to enter The Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education in Piney Point, Md., the largest school for unlicensed boatmen and unlicensed mariners in the United States.

Price decided to become a Merchant Marine and entered Piney Point.

"You have to check off what you want to do - engineering, culinary, celestial navigation," Price said. "I checked off celestial navigation, engineering, culinary. I said, 'I want them all, so I can have a job.' I did them all. I got all three licenses."

Price married while he was at the academy. After graduation, he got a job cooking for four guys on a Merchant Marine tugboat traveling to Guatemala, Haiti and Honduras. "I was cooking everything. It was Creole - oyster stew, crab cakes, stuffed flounder. I was trying to give the captain something different. The captain was in his 70s, so you're looking at a guy who'd seen a thousand cooks. I was looking for something to dazzle him left and right instead of the typical cold cuts. They were extremely happy."

Price then cooked on a boat carrying natural gas to Indonesia. "I got a chance to order anything I wanted. When you pass through Singapore, you make your order of goods."

Price began experimenting with eel and other exotic ingredients.

He retired from the Merchant Marine at 28 to spend more time with his family, which by now included daughter India.

When Price opened his first restaurant, Ya Mama's, "I did everything nouvelle. Nouvelle soul food. That was the trend in L.A."

He and his wife were eating at a Los Angeles restaurant when they met Jay King, lead singer for the R&B group, Club Nouveau. King invited Price to cook for him at his house, Price said. "I did that for two years. I put $700 in my pocket every weekend. He was a barbecue freak."

Price began to meet famous people at King's parties. "He told me, 'Wendell, the money's not in the celebrities; the money's in the directors and the producers. Meet them.' So, he taught me the game really, really young."

Price got permission from studio heads to set up free lunch buffets so the employees could sample his food.

"I laid a whole buffet thing out in their hallway, gave them a card."

He'd go all out when he got catering jobs. He'd buy candelabra, antique dishes and crushed velvet tablecloths. Then, he would prepare all types of food, always putting his own "twist" on it.

"Twist is just herbs and spices and giving it an ethnic flair."

Elizabeth Taylor shopped where Price bought unique dishes; one day she invited him to cook for her. Fried chicken is her favorite, he said.

Price had a lot of fun in those days but tired quickly of the lifestyle.

"Getting up, cooking the next day for another celebrity. Then you go hang out with that same celebrity. It's just redundant, boring. You're blowing your money at the same time. I got burned out on it."

He turned Ya Mama's into a catering business, going into partnership with other restaurant owners.

Price got to know Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis on trips to Houston, where Lewis lives. They eventually, went into business together at a restaurant, Cafe Noir. Price served nothing that cost more than $15 at the restaurant. "A lot of portions. A lot of starches."

Lewis, who no longer is affiliated with the restaurant, which now is called Cafe SoHo, is a fan of Price's.

"I thought that he had a nice international flair to his menu. That was what I thought was good," Lewis said in a phone interview.

"His menu seemed to be global. He was able to mix a lot of different foods from around the world on one plate."

Price met another future partner, Isaac Hayes, at the Acapulco Black Film Festival in Mexico. They linked up to work on Hayes's cookbook, which doubled as his autobiography.

Price is excited about the TV cooking show, which he said, will feature a celebrity each week. "Basically, I go in the kitchen. I cook whatever they want. I talk about their lifestyle, their hobbies, if they play golf or whatever."

Carlee McCullough, president of The Ivy, a new private club in Memphis, met Price in Los Angeles. She was interested in him opening The Ivy Bistro, separate from the club, but at the same location.

"I loved the flavor of his food," McCullough said. "A lot of places have food that looks fabulous, but the flavor is just absent. And his food is full of flavor. And the presentation is incredible."

Price, who now is divorced, describes his food as French Sol. "French Sol is basically soul food with a twist. Nouvelle. The aspirations are touching the soul of every continent and coming down at the bottom and giving you something like orange roughy with deep fried yams on top. So, you've got the French, and you've got the Southern."

FRENCH CUT LAMB CHOPS

5 ounces of lamb chops, French-cut (see note)

1/2 cup soy sauce

2 tablespoons dried rosemary

Salt to taste

1 tablespoon habanero peppers, thinly sliced

1 teaspoon brown sugar

Combine all ingredients except chops. Marinate lamb chops in the mixture for 1 hour. Put meat on grill. Grill 3 minutes per side. During grilling, put marinade mixture on stove on low heat and let reduce (thicken) for 5 minutes. Take meat off grill. Pour sauce over it. Serve with mashed potatoes or rice. Serves 1.

(French-cut chops have meat and fat trimmed from rib bone ends. Ask your butcher to do this for you.

Source: Wendell Price Jr.

PEACH BREAD PUDDING

6 loaves of French bread, sliced thinly

2 quarts heavy whipping cream

1 cup granulated white sugar

1 tablespoon nutmeg

1 tablespoon cinnamon

3 drops vanilla extract

2 cans sliced peaches, drained and pureed

6 eggs, beaten

Preheat oven to 315 degrees. Put bread in shallow 2-inch baking pan. Mix sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla extract and pureed peaches in large mixing bowl.

Beat eggs and add to mixture. Pour in cream. Mix ingredients well. Pour over bread in pan. Bake 2 hours, with shallow pan of water underneath the baking pan for moisture. Serves 10.

Source: Wendell Price Jr.

CATFISH ON CINNAMON KABOBS

3 (4-inch) cinnamon sticks

3 ounce strips of catfish, cleaned and trimmed

1 pinch of cinnamon

1 pinch of nutmeg

1 pinch of red pepper

3 habanero peppers, thinly sliced

1/2 onion, minced

1 tablespoon brown sugar

4 oounces Chardonnay wine

Preheat oven 350 degrees. Skewer cinnamon sticks into catfish strips to form kabobs. Lay on greased baking sheet. Mix the pinch of cinnamon, nutmeg, red pepper, habanero peppers, onion and wine in a large mixing bowl. Pour over kabob, place in oven and cook 30-40 minutes. Serves 1.

Source: Wendell Price Jr.

(Michael Donahue writes for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis