As a group of women working towards common goals for STYLE Canada‘s brand and business, we understand the value of peer support in the workplace. So, after our last Supper Club at Soho House, we decided to bring like-minded women in business together and feature them in an ongoing series: #LeadingLadies. In the exclusive interview with Digital Editor Anastasia Barbuzzi below, learn more about Chef Rene Johnson: healthy soul food chef to the stars, author, and owner of Blackberry Soul Fine Catering.
AB: If you were introducing yourself to someone for the first time, what would you tell them?
RJ: I am Chef Rene Johnson, healthy soul food chef, owner of Blackberry Soul Fine Catering, YouTube food influencer and cookbook author.
AB: For those who don’t already know, what is Blackberry Soul?
RJ: Blackberry Soul is my full service catering company. We specialize in corporate catering, serving healthy, southern inspired cuisine in an elegant style.
AB: It seems like your grandmother was the inspiration behind you becoming a chef. What was the first dish you learned to make of your grandmother’s?
RJ: It was her peach cobbler. I was probably 14 years old at the time. She had come to my mom’s house for a visit and she shared her secret with me. I will never forget that day because she did not come to our house often, as we always went to hers. My mother was so happy to have her visit.
AB: Ever since, you’ve been on a mission to make soul food favourites healthier, leading you to a 20-year reign as the most in-demand soul food chef for A-listers. How does it feel to still be doing what you’re doing?
RJ: It feels absolutely amazing. I look at my life and how my dishes affect my family, friends and especially my 10 grandchildren. My food not only brings us together, but it also keeps us together.
AB: Why do you use meat sparingly?
RJ: It’s so funny… Cooking healthy has taught me that I really do not need a lot of meat. Meat does not have to be the ‘star’ of the plate. Even as a little kid, I always preferred the rice and gravy over the smothered chicken. Now that I’ve mastered vegan cooking and can make dishes taste so wonderful without the meat, I feel like eating meat is just a waste of calories, and I don’t shed my weight like I did when I was younger.
AB: What are your favourite ways to make a vegan version of a classic, meaty Southern dish taste just as good as the real thing?
RJ: I love making collards with no meat. I add smoke to them with a smoked salt that I absolutely love, along with some chilli powder and cumin. I promise you won’t miss the meat.
AB: Your addictive soul food dishes have seduced some of the world’s biggest dignitaries, such as Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, to Congresswoman Barbera Lee and California Governor Gavin Newsom. What does it mean to you to be filling the bellies and nourishing the bodies of some of the most influential people in the world?
RJ: It is always an honor to be chosen to cook for them and their events. It is a time in my life I will never forget and I hold these opportunities dear to my heart. I would also like to think that I have inspired them through my food.
AB: With heightened racial tensions in the U.S., what is it like to be constantly in their presence, influencing them with your food and cooking style?
RJ: Food brings us together. I remember there was a time when I was catering for the City of San Francisco and Mayor Ed Lee was hosting a breakfast to have a discussion on whether to fire the current chief of police. As I was setting up, my client said to me, ‘If we get loud, come out with some fresh hot biscuits and calm everyone down’. And I have to say, it is nice when I hear that Mayor Willie Brown does not normally eat at events, but he eats my food. What I realize is that most politicians are very health conscious and I am glad that they feel safe to eat my food. They recognize that I have their best interest at heart.
AB: What do you love most about the work you do?
RJ: I love the experiences that I create when people eat my food. I love the emotion that I see when people take a bite of my blackberry cobbler.
AB: We know that you have more than a few ‘signature’ dishes that have been favourited by your clientele, but if you could pick just one as your signature, personally, what would it be?
RJ: I think there are two. Number one: our shrimp and grits. Two: our sweet potato waffle and fried chicken. Both of these dishes are requested a lot from my clients.
AB: Do your 10 grandchildren have a favourite?
RJ: My grandchildren love my cookies. Whenever I land at any of their houses, the first thing they say is, ‘Gram, are you making cookies?’ They also love my pancakes. My grandchildren request my pancakes morning and night and I happily oblige, no matter what their parents say.
AB: If you could do the same for your grandmother – pick just one dish as her signature – what would it be?
RJ: It would be my grandmother’s peach cobbler, hands down.
AB: If you could taste one thing made by your grandmother’s hands once more, what would it be?
RJ: Believe it or not, it would be her bread pudding. It is one of my favorite desserts and I still have not tasted one that moves me like hers did.
Tap or click here to get Chef Rene’s famous peach cobbler recipe!
Last modified: August 8, 2021