Atlanta chef Keith Kash builds a restaurant empire

It was in the tiny kitchen of the two-bedroom apartment he shared with his mother and brother that the culinary seed was first planted, although it would take many years for his career to take root.

She learned to cook scrambled eggs and steak (“in those old ovens, you could put a steak in the grill drawer with butter and seasoning and it cooked itself,” she says), and every summer she watched her Aunt Willie hold out canning using peaches. and pears that grew in his garden.

In particular, Kash remembers watching her mother make pies and desserts, including three ways to make peach cobbler. The “addictive” cake from him was often eaten within hours of the loaves cooling on the counter.

“I always wanted to lick the bowl,” he recalls. “But I didn’t just want to lick it. She wanted to know what was inside.

That curiosity about food would stay with him even as it faded into the background when Kash entered the Navy at 17. Although he wasn’t able to cook often during his decade in the service, he hosted a Thanksgiving feast for his Navy friends using his mother’s method of cooking turkey, placing it in a greased paper bag before putting it in the oven.

He earned a college degree while in the service and then worked for several years in network engineering before moving to Atlanta in 1999 and starting his own technology company. But food was never far from his mind. When he found success designing websites for musical acts, including OutKast (while raising two children and serving as a volunteer basketball coach), he saved money to open his own restaurant.

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When a space opened up in Gwinnett County, she jumped at the opportunity, even though she had never worked in a restaurant before.

“I’m spontaneous,” he says. “I knew I could do it, and I also knew there were gaps that hadn’t been filled in this part of town. A lot of people were moving here who wanted authentic southern food. I went home and told my family, ‘We’re going to open a restaurant.’”

He visited soul food restaurants all over the city, from the West End to Locust Grove and Decatur to the Cascade, “to see what they were doing. We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel,” she says.

He opened his first restaurant, Who’s Got Soul Cafe, in 2000 in Lawrenceville, with a menu that includes classics like fish fries, mac and cheese, and sweet potatoes.

His (now ex)wife, Crystal Barnes, ran the restaurant during the day while Kash continued her day job and relieved her at night. There were some initial stumbles, but Kash said his belief in the concept kept him going: “I didn’t know exactly what I was doing, I just knew it wasn’t going to fail. He just needed us to stay in business long enough to figure it out.”

Enter Jesse Bates, a veteran chef and owner of local restaurants including Hambones Soul Food, who stopped by Who’s Got Soul one day after getting a craving for fish fry and began sharing his experience with Kash.

“He was the answer to a lot of questions I didn’t even know I had,” Kash says. It was Bates who introduced him to the idea of ​​food science, which Kash applied to items on his menu, from braising sweet potatoes instead of baking them to better control their texture, and using cornstarch instead of flour as a thickening agent. .

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“I was hard on Keith,” says Bates. “I would never let him slack off or take shortcuts. He made it stay constant. But the key was that I tapped into his vision, and when I did, I was able to help take him where he wanted to go. If I leave here tomorrow, part of my legacy is what I’ve done with it. He is like a son to me.

Bates’ directing, along with what Kash learned from his mother, allowed Kash to subvert Southern cooking’s reputation for being unhealthy. She uses only fresh ingredients and her own blends of spices to make the comfort dishes she offers that little bit healthier.

“I am very aware that perception is real,” he says. “As soon as people say southern cooking, the first thing people think of is half a pork with vegetables. There are several types of healthy fats. It’s my job to know enough about food science, flavors, and what goes well with what to be able to select certain things for certain foods.”

The success of Who’s Got Soul eventually allowed Kash to quit his software engineering job to run the restaurant full-time and expand with a Decatur location. In 2021, he opened Who’s Got Soul Southern Grill in Duluth, offering the staples of Who’s Got Soul menus, along with more grilled dishes such as lamb chops and blackened salmon.

Meanwhile, he also worked as a special events chef for former “Real Housewives of Atlanta” star Lisa Wu, even appearing on the show.

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He also provides catering services for the city of Atlanta, which prompted him to open Cafe 55, a 5,000-square-foot cafeteria inside Atlanta City Hall that “served a little bit of everything” but closed during the pandemic.

“Throughout my trip, every stop I make along the way, I take things with me,” he says. “Everything I learn from one experience is part of my next experience… Some of the ideas I had at Cafe 55 I used at Who’s Got Soul Southern Grill and Just Brunch.”

Just Brunch is your last bet. She opened in October after she noticed there was a shortage of all-day brunch restaurants in Duluth.

“I wanted to bring a certain level of elegance that you tend to only get at night in a steakhouse, but why can’t we have that during the day with brunch?” he asks.

Just Brunch also allows you to flex your muscles in the kitchen even more, with the inclusion of menu items like Korean fried chicken and waffles and salmon hash.

“Sometimes the industry tries to push black chefs into a specific genre of food, like we can’t cure different types of food,” he says. “Because I’m a foodie first, I like being able to cook what I like to eat. I can cook Italian, Asian. And I can cook my ethnic food, which is soul food. There isn’t a food I gravitate towards, other than healthy.”

Next up is Juiced Harlem, a juice bar in his hometown that he’s opening in December with friends and hopes to bring to Atlanta. Kash relies heavily on friends and family to help run his various businesses, including his ex-wife, who serves as vice president of his restaurant group, and his son Rynel Barnes. , who manages the Lawrenceville location.

In the next few days, Kash will start making sweet potato pies that he only offers twice a year at holidays, yet another tribute to his mother. After her long journey to success, how does Kash think Lillie Mae would feel about her career as a chef and restaurateur?

He pauses for a moment before answering, looking at the photo of her on the background of his phone, then smiles.

“I think she would be very happy,” he says.

Brunch only. 1950 Satellite Blvd., Duluth. 404-400-8989,

Who has Soul Southern Café. 1098 Herrington Street, Lawrenceville. 770-995-6544 and 3818 Covington Hwy., Decatur, 404-289-0116.

Who has Soul Southern Grill. 3580 Breckinridge Blvd., Duluth. 470-268-3761,

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