A growing cult following and promising series of pop-up events seemed to ensure Soul Bowl‘s success last year, but Gerard and Brittney Klass actually fell $73,365 short of the $100,000 goal they’d set for a Kickstarter campaign in the spring. The ill-fated initiative said less about their local support—the couple managed to raise more than $25,000, after all—or long-term prospects than the ceiling that small businesses often hit when it comes to crowd-funding. Not to mention how time-consuming the process can be for a tight-knit team that’s already doing everything themselves.
“Running a Kickstarter campaign is like running for office,” says Gerard, the classically trained chef who oversees Soul Bowl’s sublime takes on tradition, including toothsome scoops of mac and cheese, slow-cooked collard greens cut with bok choy, and jalapeño-studded cornbread slathered in lavender honey butter. “It’s a lot of work making a marketing campaign, creating digital content, hosting events, writing press releases, and offering incentives. Me and my wife did it all, so to see it fail with as much buzz as we had was hard. But as the saying goes, you learn more from failure than success, and I’m glad it happened.”
Gerard claims he only considered giving up on Soul Bowl “for a day or two,” but the truth is he didn’t feel ready to double down on its fast-casual, à la carte future until a family trip put everything in perspective.
“My grandparents’ house has a way of reminding you who you are,” he explains. “I watched my aunt cook the most amazing breakfast with a skillet and propane turkey fryer after the power went out from a summer thunderstorm, and I realized that hospitality isn’t my profession; it’s my purpose.”
That’s become abundantly clear throughout 2019, as Soul Bowl has gone from hosting catering gigs and hip-hop brunches to running permanent outposts at Target Field and the North Loop’s new food hall Graze Provisions & Libations. Its momentum also allowed Gerard to leave a decade-long position at Kaskaid Hospitality last May and focus on his ultimate goal: making Soul Bowl a household name nationally, the custom destination for comfort food. In the following interview, chef Gerard discusses everything from secret family recipes to the fried chicken sandwich that’s so beautifully composed it puts Chick-fil-A and Popeyes to shame…
What’s your earliest memory of looking at food as more than something you simply eat?
Summer fish fries and barbecues at my grandparents’ house in South Bend, Indiana. I saw good food used as a tool to bring people together. Even people who didn’t get along.
Is there one restaurant you really looked forward to eating at when you were a kid?
I grew up in Seattle and loved a restaurant by the airport called Emerald Thai Cuisine. It was a green log cabin that served the most amazing food, including fried chicken, green and red curries, and pad thai. I have great memories of eating with my family there after church events.
How about a restaurant that showed you how familiar dishes could be elevated in some way?
I went to visit my family in New York City as a kid, and they took me to a soul food restaurant called Pink Tea Cup by NYU. I watched a chef cook breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the same time while singing Luther Vandross songs in one of the smallest kitchens I’ve ever seen. It was the first time I saw soul food plated elegantly—where the presentation matched the flavors.
At what age did you start cooking yourself?
I was probably 4 when my mother and aunt Marlee would have us help with dinner. We would stand on a chair placed up against the kitchen counter. Cornbread was the first dish I learned to make by myself. We had a cast iron pan that I got to bake it in.
Did you look at the restaurant business as a potential career path when you were a teenager, or were you thinking of doing something entirely different?
I always wanted to be a chef! I grew up watching Emeril Lagasse on TV, and my late uncle Gerard used to own a Baskin-Robbins in Brooklyn. Ever since I went to his store, I knew I wanted to work with food someday just like him.
What was your first proper gig cooking, and what were some of your biggest takeaways from it?
I worked at Subway as a teen, but my first proper cooking gig was an internship at Wolfgang Puck’s 20.21 restaurant in the Walker Art museum. I learned quality and consistency. If the product wasn’t good or the dish wasn’t right, they didn’t serve it. I also learned how important preparation is. They used to prepare all morning, and when service started they would execute it effortlessly.
You attended the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Minneapolis a little over a decade ago. Did that classical training inspire you as a chef, or did it feel a little too stuffy, or focused on traditional French techniques and fine dining?
Man, I loved culinary school, but it’s one of those things where you get out of it what you put in. The classical French training I learned can be fused with any cuisine. I still use some of those techniques today.
Did any mentors help you find your voice as a chef around that time?
No one person in particular. I am one of those people who learns something from everyone I work with, from dishwashers to chefs.
Soul Bowl’s roots are in a prix fixe pop-up you hosted a couple times in 2017. Did the response to those two events exceed your expectations?
Yes, we put up our own money for the first one and didn’t know if anyone would come. We sold all of the food we had prepped for the weekend the first night. Me and my wife knew then that we had to do whatever it took to bring Soul Bowl to life.
What kind of feedback did you get that led you away from a tasting menu and toward a more customizable restaurant concept?
During our Klassics pop-up, we had a lot of modifications to the entrées. I wanted to create a menu where you can create your own custom meal each time you order. Someone also told me that if a customer can pick exactly what they want, there is a high likelihood of them being satisfied with their meal.
Bowls and fast-casual restaurants have been huge food trends in recent years. How did you approach things differently with Soul Bowl?
First thing we did was bring soul food into this realm, which hasn’t been done before. The second thing we did was make the menu à la carte so you’re not just picking a protein; you get to pick everything. This makes it easy for people with food allergies or dietary preferences to navigate the menu. It also allows for a low entry-level price point, which is important to me. I want to make Soul Bowl affordable for everyone.
Are any of Soul Bowl’s dishes based on family recipes?
My favorite one is named after my late grandfather Henry “Papo” Taylor. He was something like a pitmaster, and he made the most amazing barbecue sauce. The mac and cheese and cornbread dressing are also recipes adapted from how my mother makes them. The collard green recipe is a blend from me and my wife’s family. The bok choy comes from my side, and the jalapeño comes from her side.
When did the folks behind Graze reach out about being one of their vendors, and how did you translate the vibe of your pop-ups to a shared food hall space?
Funny story; a few days after we found out we were not going to be able to get a location in the Harrison neighborhood we wanted, I got an Instagram message from Graze looking to meet. I was very skeptical about the whole thing at first, but my wife thought it was a good opportunity and I eventually came around. We were blessed to have an amazing customer base from our first day; they brought the Soul Bowl vibe with them. This helped the food hall feel like home very quickly.
Does working in the same building as other up-and-coming chefs and brands fuel your creativity in some ways?
Yes, we are all learning from each other every day. I also love the competitive nature of it. We all want to be the best, and the competition helps raise the food quality in the building.
Beyond the names of your actual dishes, can you tell me a little bit about how your love of hip-hop, and music in general, has influenced how you approached the menu at Soul Bowl?
Music is such a big part of my life; outside of food, I rap, sing, and do spoken word as part of my self-expression. My older brother is very gifted musically. He and I recorded and produced rap songs when I was younger. I even had an album at one point. (I’ve been known to hit the open mic circuit in Minneapolis.)
Hip-hop has always been the background music to my life and the only genre telling my story as a black man in America. We listen to it while we work and create, and a lot of our customers are amazing local artists—like the band iLLism. There are also a lot of lyrics about food in hip-hop, so we take those lyrics and bring them to life on the plate.
Who’s one artist you’d love to name a dish after and why?
Tupac! He is my wife’s favorite artist, and we listen to a lot of his music. His music is so timeless; it is still feeding us today. We are still searching for the right dish to honor him with.
Were you both excited and anxious when Big K.R.I.T. actually showed up to try his chicken sandwich a couple months back?
I never thought that I would get to meet one of my favorite rappers because of a chicken sandwich. We named it after him because we love his music and wanted to honor him; he inspires and positively influences us. One thing I learned from that experience is to never underestimate the power of social media.
Can you share the thought process behind a few of your favorite dishes on the Soul Bowl menu?
I ask myself how classic dishes can taste, look, and eat better. I also try to add in ingredients and techniques not normally associated with the dish to elevate it.
Take our F.U.B.U. Chicken & Waffles, for instance. Chicken and waffles is a dish that everyone loves, including me, but it’s hard to get the perfect bite of waffle, syrup, and chicken. To make it taste better, I wanted to play further into the salty and sweet by adding applewood-smoked turkey bacon. I also wanted more texture in the dish, so we added spiced peaches to add some contrast from the crispy waffle and chicken. I wanted the syrup to have some depth, so we infused it with hickory smoke and Sriracha for a sweet, smoky, and spicy topping. Lastly, we diced the waffle and the chicken to make it easier to get the perfect bite more often.
I also have my wife and staff taste dishes over and over and over until they’re perfect. Everyone on the team provides feedback that we look at with the sole intent of making the food better from all angles.
What’s one dish you really love that is a sleeper hit on the menu—something you’re proud of, but fewer people order?
Rude Boi Jerk Chicken and Waffles. I wanted to bring some West Indian flavors to chicken and waffles. We take our jerk chicken and pair it with a Belgian waffle, diced fresh pineapple, jerk-infused maple syrup, fried sweet plantain, and green onions. It’s an amazing twist on the classic you have to experience.
How long did it take you to master the vegan fried chicken dish that you just added to the menu? It sounds like yet another example of how you take vegan and vegetarian options very seriously.
I have tested the dish several times over the past two years. I was a vegetarian for 15 years. My mother is a vegetarian, and my brother and his family are vegan. Growing up, we used to make gluten—what they call seitan now—from scratch at home, and my mother would season it lightly, bread it, and fry it. That experience, and having to make real fried chicken, gave me a deeper look into vegan fried chicken. I understand both products, which helps me make the vegan fried chicken as authentic as possible.
Finally, what are your plans for 2020 and beyond? Are you looking to make Soul Bowl a regional fast-casual chain?
Our plans are to take over the world. I want Soul Bowl to be as big as Chipotle one day. Right now, we are working on winning over Minnesota. We will be looking at a second standalone location where we can control the whole experience. We are also working on getting into the State Fair and doing more music and food festivals.
Any chance we’ll eventually see you open a restaurant that’s more similar to your earlier Klassics pop-up, with coursed-out dishes and/or more of a fusion vibe?
Man, I love that concept. It’s always on the back burner, waiting for the right timing and location. One day it will come to life.