Savor cornbread, collard greens and catfish at Southern KitchenNov 17, 2020 11:55AM ● By Linnea Lundgren
Chef Julius Thompson of Sauce Boss Southern Kitchen in Draper. (Photo by Jack Berry Photography)
By Linnea Lundgren | [email protected]
Julius Thompson believes in the Golden Rule. He’s also a firm believer in the lesser-known, but closely related, “Chef’s Rule”: “Feed people the way you want to be fed,” says Thompson, the chef and owner of Sauce Boss Southern Kitchen. “You need to put love and energy into the food you prepare.”
Equipped with a lot of energy (he’s also an author and dad to five kids) and a love of good cooking, Thompson delivers up Southern delights like fried chicken, shrimp and grits, and spiced corn with blackened butter for Draper residents to enjoy.
“Southern cooking is a celebration of American cuisine,” Thompson said. Soul food, a cuisine developed in the American South, was born of necessity. Many dishes originated with enslaved West Africans who were brought against their will to America during the colonial period. They were given rations of cornmeal and “thrown the odd piece of meat” by slaveowners, explained Thompson, with which they had to construct hearty meals in order to keep up work in the fields. Recipes were passed down generation to generation by example.
“It’s [a cuisine] that came from pain and anguish, but turned into something that’s truly American, that’s celebrated and truly beautiful,” he said.
Thompson’s love of cooking started with his grandma. Born in the 1930s, she raised 10 kids in a Chicago housing project and fed them on Southern dishes she learned to cook from her Arkansas-born parents. Thompson remembers sitting in her kitchen, quietly observing her coat catfish with cornmeal and hearing it sizzle on the skillet. For a treat, she’d sauté green apples in butter and brown sugar. Today, he uses caramelized apples blended with cream cheese to top his bread pudding.
But it was his grandmother’s cornbread that was truly extraordinary. She’d bake it in that quintessential Southern cooking tool, a cast-iron skillet, which gave it a dark, buttery and salty crust. “Muffin tins don’t produce that kind of crust,” Thompson explained. “That bitter-salty crust adds to the experience of the rest of it. Bitter is a flavor profile…people forget that sometimes.”
In a childhood torn apart by a crack-addicted mother, the early death of his father, homelessness and hunger, he found comfort and stability in his grandmother’s kitchen.
After high school, Thompson studied to be a pharmacist. He had seen the destruction drug addiction had caused in his mother’s life and wanted to be on the other side, where drugs could help people heal. Also, it was a career he believed would bring financial stability after growing up in poverty. But when he questioned what was important in life, he knew happiness was found at his grandma’s place, where the refrigerator was always full, and at school, where he could eat breakfast and lunch.
“I remember how happy I was when I got a meal, when my grandma cooked for people and I saw their faces when they took their first bite. I wanted to cook to bring happiness to myself and to others,” he said. He enrolled in culinary school, where he excelled at making sauces (hence, his nickname “Sauce Boss”) and graduated top of his class. After working at various restaurants, he started a food truck specializing in pasta and sauces, and then finally opened Southern Kitchen.
“I love all the different foods Utah has, but for some reason, American food isn’t celebrated so much,” he said. “[At my restaurant,] I wanted to showcase a cuisine that is truly American.”
He draws on his grandmother’s cooking legacy, making everything from scratch, including the five sauces he sells: barbecue, tartar, ranch, maple hot sauce and soul sauce. He’s frugal like she was—instead of discarding tough collard green stems, he softens them in his stews. And he supports other small American businesses, buying his catfish—a lean, mild-tasting fish—from a Mississippi farm, not from abroad as is commonly done at other restaurants.
Southern food is a new taste experience for many in Utah, so Thompson talks with customers and helps educate their palates by offering samples. He’s converted many to the delights of collard greens with onion and bacon, but black-eyed peas have been a more difficult sell. “A lot of people had them poured on their plate from a can and were told to eat it,” he said. Luckily, such bad culinary experiences vanish once people taste Thompson’s slow-simmered, savory black-eyed peas in a rich broth. Oh, there’s bacon in there, too.
Like many small businesses, his restaurant has been affected by the pandemic, with food sales down 60%. With a newborn at home and a child with asthma, he’s been cautious about reopening and currently offers only takeout. Customers can order off the menu or try a family dinner-to-go, which feeds four-to-six people and offers the options of blackened pork chops ($40), boneless chicken-fried chicken ($45) or crispy, breaded catfish filets ($55). Family dinners include two sides and cornbread.
Despite the toll the pandemic has taken on business, he says it has also made people focus on the important things in life like family, home and food—especially food that warms both stomach and soul.
“Southern food, soul food is truly American. It’s ours,” said Thompson. “It’s comforting and loving and it makes people happy.”
Sauce Boss Southern Kitchen, 877 E. 123rd South, is open for takeout Tues.-Sat., 12-8 p.m. Call 385-434-CHEF for take-out orders.