Soul Food for the Heart
By Michael Humphrey
Some food historians believe the term “soul food” was first used to describe meals prepared after Sunday worship by and for African Americans. But it can also be argued the cuisine got its name from the diners’ reaction. Soul food is so good, you can have your own transcendent experience with or without church.
And while there’s no questioning soul food’s intelligent design, Vera S. Willis, vice president and executive chef at The Peach Tree Restaurant in Kansas City, says the cuisine is also evolving.
“I noticed that my customers weren’t eating the same way they did as a child growing up,” Willis says. “They don’t eat pigs’ feet, chitterlings, you know. So I decided not to focus on those traditional soul food items, but change the art of soul food cooking slightly.”
And that evolution can be found in her upscale restaurant, located in Kansas City’s historic 18th and Vine Jazz District.
The mix of modern comfort food served in an atmosphere fit for haute cuisine, plus plenty of private dining options, has made the Peach Tree Restaurant one of Kansas City’s favorite group dining destinations.
Soul food with the heart in mind
Willis is quick to say that lovers of soul food should not be dismayed. The spirit of the dishes will still be tasted. But like all prosperous ventures, soul food has changed with the times.
“The first change I made to the art of soul food cooking,” she says, “was to eliminate the fatty meats and all the grease in the cooking. And that’s been accepted tremendously by the African American community and by other majority and minority races. They love that style of comfort cooking.”
One look at Willis’ menu and it’s easy to see that there is plenty of soul still in the food: Southern fried chicken, tender baked neck-bones, Mississippi fried catfish and blackened shrimp are some of the main temptations to the palate.
Desserts include the signature peach cobbler, sweet potato pie and pecan pie.
The side dishes also speak deeply to the traditionally southern fare – baked macaroni and cheese, candied yams, baked sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, green beans, cabbage, collard greens and much more – but there’s also a twist in these dishes.
“I realized in experimenting that you don’t need meat to have a flavor for vegetables,” Willis says, “just a different blend of seasonings. And I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve been so successful. I hit upon healthy soul food.”
Lunch entrees range between $8 and $13, while dinner entrees begin at $12 for neckbones and rise to near $30 for seafood entrees and steaks. The restaurant offers a wine menu and full-service bar, set menus for larger groups or open menus if the group desires.
An ear for cooking
Willis’ success cannot be attributed to a long resume of apprenticeships. She never worked in a restaurant before 1996, when she opened Peach Tree Buffet, located at 6800 Eastwood Trfwy., along with her husband James. Before the grand opening, she was an accountant. But the Tallolah, Louisiana, native had a vision and a strategy for making the business work.
“I wanted a restaurant that basically specialized in southern cuisine,” she says. “I did a little market research and found there was a demand for buffet style southern cuisine in the community at that time, as opposed to fine dining or fast food.”
Willis, who moved to Kansas City 35 years ago, says she used her mother’s cooking as a primary influence when she started the restaurant.
“She was the type of mother down south that it was not unusual to awaken any morning with grits and salt pork,” Willis says, “and on weekends there were fried chicken, candied yams and homemade biscuits. I remembered that and I wanted a restaurant to reflect that style of eating.”
But Willis says her own taste buds led her only so far. It was her ears that did the rest.
“I love to cook, and I love the style of food, but I listen to my customers,” she says. “What they tell me helps me experiment and keep getting better. And your customers notice that.”
It sounds so easy, but it doesn’t come without a lot of work and an open mind.
“I’m always reading and learning more about cooking,” Willis says. “I also eat at restaurants all over town to see what they are doing and how they are doing it. I don’t want to just know about southern food. We can cook bistro food, Italian food, and other cuisines. When we cater, we create dishes you wouldn’t find on the menu, because we need to be flexible.”
Like Willis says, her version of southern comfort cooking has made her restaurant available to all tastes. And her success with her first restaurant, The Peach Tree Buffet, gave her a chance to help soul food evolve in another way, with ambiance.
The Peach Tree Restaurant, 1512 E. 18th St., opened in 2003. And while the food was popular, it was the décor that grabbed a lot of people’s attention.
Dark wood paneling, beautiful murals, soft lighting from pendant fixtures, faux finished walls, oak shutters on windows that provide beautiful views of downtown Kansas City, a grand piano that plays in the evening, often accompanying some of Kansas City’s best soloists – it all created quite a sensation.
“Hands down, this is the most elegant Southern soul-food restaurant west of the Missouri River,” raved the Pitch Weekly.
And Ingram’s Magazine named Peach Tree one of the Best New Restaurants of 2003 with this description: “The new Peach tree … shows what can happen when the Peach Tree Buffet, an icon of the east side, goes upscale.”
“I wanted to change the perception of soul food,” Willis says. “When you think of soul food, you think of some greasy spoon restaurant. I wanted to be one of the first ones to change that perception.”
With that change – and a menu that can please even the most traditional tastes – Peach Tree is a busy restaurant for groups. And the owners guessed that would happen, so they created spaces for groups that would stand out.
“That was my husband’s idea,” Willis says. “He is the designer of the family. We get so many corporate customers, because 18th and Vine is a destination location, and he knew that would be the case.”
The Peach Tree Restaurant offers a variety of private dining options:
The private dining room holds up to 40 people. Heavy drapes allow for multimedia presentations and the room can be set with rounds, in a horseshoe configuration or classroom style. A $50 fee is charged to rent the private dining room and a $200 minimum is assessed for dinners.
The east wing is located away from the main dining room and seats up to 30. It’s used primarily for receptions or casual dining. A $50 fee is assessed for rental of the space.
Three private dining booths provide the most intimate atmosphere. Heavy drapes on the doorway and booth seating with large tables give the room ultimate comfort and seclusion. The smallest private booth seats up to 8 people and the largest seats up to 18. Groups of four or under may need to pay a $25 reservation fee for the booths, but the staff is willing to work with customers if the booths are not being used.
(Michael Humphrey is the contributing editor from Kansas City, MO)