ADRIENNE CHEATHAM GREW up feeling at home in restaurants. She did her daily homework in the nonsmoking section of the Chicago diner and bar where her mother worked, pitching in to bus tables or mop the bathroom floor when the place was short-staffed. She noticed the camaraderie among the staff, and marveled at the warm way she was treated, despite the fact that she was frequently sick as a child. These people felt like her kin.
Determined to make a career in food, Cheatham went to culinary school and then worked in the kitchens of renowned chefs at some of the most prestigious restaurants in New York City. At Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin, Cheatham started as a commis and worked her way up to executive sous-chef. In all, she spent eight years at the 3-Michelin-star restaurant before leaving to work with another luminary, Marcus Samuelsson.
“I want to learn how to have my own restaurant,” Cheatham told the New York Times in 2016, when she was the subject of an episode of the “Taste Makers” documentary series about the challenges young chefs face climbing the ranks in a demanding and highly competitive industry. At that time, Cheatham was working 12 to 16 hours a day in the kitchen at Samuelsson’s Red Rooster in Harlem. She talked about the difficulty of finding mental space to develop her own recipes and flavors, her own “clear and concise vision.”
In the ensuing years, however, she found a way. Cheatham was a contestant on Season 15 of “Top Chef,” making it to the finale and finishing in second place in 2018. She founded SundayBest, a pop-up series hosted in various (secret) locations around Harlem.
That anticipation we feel when we’ve cleaned up nicely and are about to gather to eat cherished foods in community is an ‘ideal’ we can always strive for.
“Sunday Best” is also the name of Cheatham’s new cookbook, and in its pages her vision is on proud display. The concept comes from the long-held African American tradition of dressing up in one’s best clothes for church services. During the era of slavery, Cheatham writes in the introduction, “there were laws preventing Black people from gathering in groups of more than two or three. The only time they were really allowed to gather was at the plantation church house on Sundays.” In addition to being a day of worship, Sunday became a time to shine one’s shoes and break out one’s nicest garments in order to see and be seen. It’s also a day to show gratitude and celebrate bounty by cooking and eating well.
This spirit of gratitude, joy, abundance, and honoring tradition is at the core of Cheatham’s food philosophy across every day of the week. In her view, that anticipation we feel when we’ve cleaned up nicely and are about to gather to eat cherished foods in community is an “ideal” we can always strive for: “Sunday Best,” she writes, “refers not only to putting on your best clothes but also your best attitude.”
‘Sunday Best’ shines in the entrée category, where Cheatham presents elevated, nuanced dishes that showcase her unique take on Southern ingredients.
The pop-up and the cookbook are a celebration of Southern cuisine, which has long been undermined and viewed as “humble” by a biased culinary establishment. It’s also an outgrowth of a tradition Cheatham and her sister Jacqui started in college, cooking what they called Cheatham Soul Food Sundays for some of their classmates at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee.
The recipes in “Sunday Best” are stunners. Breakfast is delightfully well-represented, with recipes for “Flaky Layered Biscuits With Sausage Gravy,” “Cornbread Toad-in-the-Hole With Crab and Andouille” (a dressed-up version of a dish she served at Samuelsson’s Streetbird), “Green Tomato Shakshuka,” and “Tater Tot Waffles With Candied Bacon” (which I’ve bookmarked). There is also a clever chapter filled with tantalizing appetizers and snacks for “all-day grazing,” which range from fairly light (“Butter Bean Hummus”) to stack-of-napkins decadent (“Spicy-Sweet-Crispy Candied Chicken Wings”), and a section on “appetizers for dinner,” a frequent strategy in my house that I was delighted to see called out by name.
Unsurprisingly, “Sunday Best” shines in the entrée category, where Cheatham presents elevated, nuanced dishes that showcase her unique take on Southern ingredients, like “Brioche-Crusted Salmon” and “Roasted Catfish With Herby Yogurt.” The key elements that should feature on a plate, according to Cheatham, are a protein, a starch, and a vegetable. Home cooks can look to her chapters on these categories to combine any number of recipes — or make one category the star and serve a showstopping dish with super simple side dishes.
“Sunday Best” is a warm and approachable guide to Southern flavors, and a surefire way to incorporate a bit of fine-dining sparkle into your weeknight routine. The book also boasts a welcome focus on technique, as in the chapter on sauces, and has page-long biographical anecdotes such as “learning to cook like a grown-up.”
Though she’s careful to pay homage to the culinary stars she learned from, it’s clear from Cheatham’s debut cookbook that she has found her own unique style. The “Sunday Best” philosophy is an easy way to bring pleasure and pride to cooking — the only problem will be choosing which dish to make first.
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Nina Renata Aron Writer
Nina Renata Aron is a senior editor of Departures based in Oakland, California. She is the author of "Good Morning, Destroyer of Men's Souls." Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the New Republic, Elle, Eater, and Jezebel.
Kelly Marshall Photographer
Kelly Marshall is a New York–based photographer, specializing in interiors, travel, and portraiture. She is a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.