When you think of Southern food, there are a range of locations that you may imagine, though I don’t think that many people envision Washington, D.C. However, contrary to that thought, there is a renowned D.C.-based restaurant that has a menu inspired by the South, Art and Soul. Owned by Chef Art Smith, the menu is an infusion of his Southern style of cooking and that of Chef Wes Morton.
Together they have crafted a menu that seems to effortlessly blend Southern cooking and local ingredients. I was able to speak with Chef Wes to learn more about Art and Soul.
TT: With the combined Southern influence of you and Chef Art, there are a good number of Southern dishes on the menu. What is your favorite?
CW: The Ham Wrapped Virginia Rabbit. It’s extremely seasonal and allows us to be creative. We change the rabbit dish every spring. We probably will remove it from the menu by the end of June
TT: I noticed that there is a Hoecake section on the menu. Is this common to Southern menus?
CW: This is part of Art, his background, where he comes from. I had never seen them as a section of a menu before here. It is unique and extremely Southern. Usually they are served for breakfast; we make them more savory.
TT: I also noticed that you have a seasonal happy hour; do you change food and beverages?
CW: We change the cocktails and the appetizers. We highlight certain liquors, such as this summer, when we will get into tequilas and mezcals.
TT: On the current seasonal happy hour menu, I saw crab beignets and deviled eggs. Those are interesting items, especially the eggs, as they seem labor intensive.
CW: The eggs are extremely time consuming; we boil, peel, and cut them in half. Then with the yolk we make an aioli with garlic, mustard, lemon, lots of olive oil. We use spice mix from our own in-house-made tasso ham to flavor the aioli.
TT: What makes your restaurant unique?
CW: There’s not a whole lot of southern food in DC. It’s hard to find Southern food that is very focused. My influence comes from southern Louisiana, a mix of Cajun and Creole. We also do a lot of work with local farms. We get local ingredients and apply a Southern style of cooking.
TT: Is your family’s cooking reflected in the menu?
CW: In Louisiana, the best cooking is at home, not at a restaurant, so I use a lot of that in my cooking, how I approach food. One dish is the Warm Crawfish Tart, which is based on a crawfish etouffée.
TT: So, these recipes that influenced you come from your mom, grandma, etc.?
CW: Actually, the men run the kitchens back home. They are passionate about cooking. A traditional dish for us is cochon de lait, roast of milk fed pig, which is cooked for fourteen hours. The men are in charge of that.
I come from a family that is passionate about food. We have the same food from house to house, but each family has its own twist, dynamic. Each is very opinionated about how it should be done.