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THE NEXT BRANCH | The Roosevelt’s new chef elevates Southern food with history and passion

THE NEXT BRANCH | The Roosevelt’s new chef elevates Southern food with history and passion

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Leah Branch's small, yellow, Chesterfield County house, the same one that belonged to her late grandma Peggy, rests on a few acres of land that have been in the family since 1878. It was the first piece of property her ancestors acquired after their emancipation and somewhere out back, where the plot converges with a cluster of trees, lays the buried remains of a distant relation or two.

Being there in that space is "really grounding," says Branch. As if one can somehow draw on the energy of all who came before them – though “not in the haunted way,” she adds laughing.

Originally a one-room structure with no indoor plumbing, the house had been handed down for generations, with each new inhabitant improving upon it. But it certainly wasn’t move-in ready when Branch returned to Virginia in January of last year, after 15 years away.

She and her dad spent months fixing the place up, erecting new walls, redoing the kitchen, and installing air conditioning. It was a lot of work, but the house is a legacy and that’s important to Branch – in her personal life as well as her professional one.

Branch is the executive chef at The Roosevelt, an award-winning Richmond restaurant where she upholds another legacy we call “Southern food,” the lineage of which is largely traceable to enslaved Africans.

The Virginia-born chef highlights this lineage through her boldly-creative cooking style, fortifying the contributions of early Black Southerners who, while enduring the evils of slavery, endowed us with a beautiful culinary inheritance that continues to evolve and define our region.

For Branch, food tells a story, one with nuance and intrigue – and whenever possible, a punchline. A good number of her dishes at The Roosevelt originated with the question, “Wouldn’t it be funny if I …?”

As in, wouldn’t it be funny if I butchered an alligator and dressed it up as a Low Country-inspired version of piccata? Or, wouldn’t it be funny if I painted “a portrait of a swamp on a plate” with a whole fried catfish on a heap of butter rice and tomato gravy?

Lighthearted as it seems, there is serious craft and intentionality behind Branch’s cooking. Her ability to balance flavors, masterfully saucing and garnishing dishes and making the layers cohere, is impressive. Her technique, such as tempura-frying stalks of rapini in rice flour to a gossamer crispness, is impeccable. And her use of ingredients that showcase the African diaspora – like benne seeds, black-eyed peas, and Carolina Gold rice – is insightful.

“I want [those ingredients] to be integrated into the plate in a way that lets them shine,” she explains. “I want us to be able to say, ‘This is Carolina Gold rice, and this is why we’re able to have it today.’”

Confident as Branch is today, at 36, she didn’t always have an especially clear vision of what she wanted to do as a chef. All she knew, to the dismay of her parents, was that she wanted to be one.

The only food service job she had growing up was at a gas-station Dairy Queen, so Thomas and Lorna Branch were skeptical when their daughter announced she was leaving for culinary school at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, North Carolina.

For the first 11 years in North Carolina, Branch dabbled in everything but restaurant line-cooking. She worked as the banquet chef for a Charlotte country club. She handled catering and pastries at the Omni Charlotte Hotel. She managed a waterfront eatery. And she ran a successful donut franchise with locations in downtown Wilmington and Carolina Beach.

She didn’t acquire her first official taste of “the line” until 2018, when a colleague invited her to join Moonrakers in Beaufort, North Carolina, as one of its inaugural sous chefs. Intimidated as she’d been by the notion, Branch found herself liking it.

Thrown into the heart of the dinner rush at the 300-person mega-eatery and pushed to experiment with new dishes, Branch quickly distinguished herself. By her third year, she was promoted to executive chef.

“She was definitely hesitant at first,” says Chris Stephens, the Moonrakers chef who tapped her as his successor. But “her growth from Day 1 to Day 730 was pretty quick.” And it was fairly obvious even then that she "gravitated back toward doing modern Southern cuisine."

Branch was happy at Moonrakers, but during the pandemic a little voice started urging her to return home and reconnect with family – something Branch's folks had been not-so-quietly hinting at for years. So, she started looking for jobs in the Richmond area and plotting her return.

Surprisingly, before the executive chef position opened up at The Roosevelt, Branch had never eaten there. All she knew of Kendra Feather’s iconic, red clapboard-sided corner restaurant in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond was what she read about it.

The Roosevelt has played a seminal role in the rise of the Richmond dining scene. Under its founding chef, Lee Gregory, it earned three James Beard Award semifinalist nominations (2013, 2014, 2015) and was named one of Southern Living’s 10 best new restaurants in the South in 2014.

What moved her most, though, was The Roosevelt’s unwavering focus on honoring the culinary heritage of the South and creating elevated, modern dishes using regional ingredients and ideas. The subject of Southern foodways is one that Branch has long been passionate about. “To me, Southern is also African American history,” Branch says. “Southern foods come from people who were brought here against their will and had to cook to survive.”

Learning about these intrinsic connections is something she does with the voraciousness of an academic. Branch, who continually seeks out new sources of information, recently finished reading “The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families,” and also liked “Bound to the Fire: How Virginia's Enslaved Cooks Helped Invent American Cuisine.” Conversations with Feather and co-owner Mark Herndon last February, in which Southern foodways literature was vigorously discussed, proved to Branch that they were kindred spirits.

In accepting the job, Branch knew the pressure she’d be under as the first woman, and the first person of color, to run the kitchen in its 12-year history. This is not your typical neighborhood restaurant either. The Roosevelt has been a veritable dining institution since 2011.

“The Roosevelt has its own personality, to a certain extent. And it’s been here doing its thing for quite a while,” Branch says. “I want [Feather and Herndon] to feel that the restaurant is safe with me.”

Last winter, the restaurant took an extended hiatus for renovations. Branch had about a month to hire a new crew, study old Roosevelt menus, and test out dishes. The sole directive she received was to retain the chicken wings, cornbread, and cheeseburger – cult-classics that would spark rebellion if they were removed from the menu. Apart from that, she was given free rein to revamp and reinvent.

Her food may be inspired by fine-dining chefs like Mashama Bailey, a two-time James Beard Award winner who's championed the exploration of Southern and African American culinary traditions, but her personal vision is confidently etched in every plate.

And since The Roosevelt reopened in 2022 with her at the helm, Branch's vision has been eagerly embraced. Branch has been dubbed a rising star of the dining scene by both The Richmond Times-Dispatch and Richmond magazine and featured in The New York Times in a profile documenting the dramatic evolution of Richmond as a Southern city.

And she’s just getting fired up. Branch already has plans to collaborate on an epic Juneteenth feast with Deb Freeman, the culinary historian who, on her chart-topping podcast “Setting the Table," studies Black foodways, from the little-known origins of Southern barbecue to soul food.

“[Branch] and I are doing similar work, but hers obviously is a lot tastier than mine,” says Freeman, who developed a profound admiration for the chef after meeting her last May. “She is honoring the tradition of African American cuisine, … while still being creative, while still pushing the envelope, while still thinking outside the box.”

Their upcoming dinner, hosted at The Roosevelt, will pay tribute to African American culinary icons from Virginia, including James Hemings, a French-trained chef and slave at President Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello; Edna Lewis, the Grand Dame of Southern Cooking; and legendary Richmond bartender Jasper Crouch.

“I'm really just having the best time,” says Branch, who celebrated her one-year anniversary at The Roosevelt on February 17. “It’s really been a dream.”

The chef usually spends mornings in the solitude of The Roosevelt’s kitchen, creating, prepping, organizing, all while listening to some podcast (usually of the horror-fiction variety). Her crew, a sous and three chefs de partie, trickle in around 1 p.m.

The sun streams in through the giant dining room windows in the late afternoon. Branch shuffles between the front and back of the house. Are the menus in order? What about those sunchokes?

Her kitchen demeanor is remarkably zen, the timbre of her voice never rising above the mellow frequency of a smooth-jazz radio host. Come evening, Branch saunters through the dining room, chatting with guests, hands coolly tucked inside her denim-blue apron. There’s an intimacy to these interactions that she genuinely enjoys, a chance to engage guests and explain her creative process.

Her parents, on occasion, pop in for dinner unannounced. Agreeable as they are, Thomas, a retired postal union worker with more of a taste for steaky Italian, may send a round of raw oysters back and ask for them grilled. Or Lorna may complain about the necessity of sauce – “all that junk,” as she calls it – on a dish. Branch, nonetheless, delights to see them.

Outside of work, she spends significant time gardening with her dad, who still lives next door, planting squash and tomatoes in the yard and nursing old grapevines back to life. Together, they're also digging deeper into their family history, mining old records and uncovering more about the past, including the ancestral home.

After years away her life has come full circle, personally and professionally. This is where she belongs, reunited with her family and returned to her roots. And for once, says the chef, “I feel at peace.”

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