In the late 1980s, when Hilton Als was working in Manhattan at The Village Voice, he’d sometimes get off the subway several stops before his Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment and wander through Downtown Brooklyn. One evening, he passed by Gage & Tollner, the Gilded Age chophouse, and noticed a woman in the window. “There were gas lamps in the restaurant, and she had on her chef ’s whites, her white hair. She was walking between the tables, and I couldn’t take my eyes off her,” Als recalls. He didn’t realize until much later that this regal figure was Edna Lewis, the acclaimed chef and author known as “the Grande Dame of Southern Cooking.”
So begins Edna Lewis, Als’s new play in progress, which premieres at Carolina Performing Arts in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on February 6th and 7th. A tribute to the chef who championed the seasonal, communal aspects of Southern cooking long before our farm-to-table era, it stars vocalist and performance artist Helga Davis in the title role and multidisciplinary artist Justin Hicks as the young Als.
A Pulitzer Prize–winning critic at The New Yorker, Als had long wanted to write a piece about the resurgent interest in Southern cooking. “I started to delve into the history of [Lewis] as a beautifully shy Southern woman who had defied the odds and gotten out of Virginia but also become very political in the process,” he says. He filled in details with help from Lewis’s friends, like Alice Waters, who told him Lewis would pack her own pie crust when she visited California. “She was a spiritual nourisher in addition to being a great chef,” he says.
Born in 1916 in Freetown, Virginia, a community of emancipated slaves her grandfather helped establish, Lewis moved to New York in her early thirties. In 1948, she helped open Café Nicholson, an Upper East Side bistro where guests like Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams flocked for her herb-roasted chicken and chocolate soufflé; it became, Als says, a “sort of a second home to a lot of gay people, and people who had managed to escape the confines of a Southern background.” Lewis left the café in the mid-1950s and began writing cookbooks that braided her memories of Freetown with her singularly refined approach to Southern cuisine.
In late 1988, Lewis took the helm of the kitchen at Gage & Tollner, where she updated the menu with Southern classics like Charleston she-crab soup and rhubarb pie. “I would just get off the train and stare at her,” Als remembers. “I always wanted to know who she was.” He only discovered her identity years later after seeing one of her cookbooks at the home of writer Jamaica Kincaid.
Lewis passed away in 2006 and in recent years has become an icon among a new generation of chefs and food writers. Last spring, Knopf reissued her seminal cookbook In Pursuit of Flavor, which followed the 2018 publication of an essay collection examining her lasting influence. And, as it happens, a group of Brooklyn restaurateurs is planning to reopen Gage & Tollner in early 2020.
After the performances in North Carolina, Als hopes to continue developing the piece next fall as part of Princeton University’s Atelier program, which brings professional artists to campus to work on ongoing projects. This creative process has afforded Als a new way to explore his enduring kinship with Lewis, even if he only ever glimpsed her through the restaurant’s windows. “That serves the piece,” he says. “I can have more romance with her on the page than in life.”