THE QUEEN OF SOUL FOOD ; Charita Jones's Passion for Food Took Her from the Mean Streets of Philadelphia to Her Own Restaurant on Brighton Seafront. Now, Thanks to a Televised Roasting from Gordon Ramsay, She Is Publishing Her Own Book of Recipes. Emily Dugan Reports ++ A Celebrity Chef with a Difference
Dugan, Emily, The Independent (London, England)
Growing up in a Philadelphia ghetto in segregated 1950s America, Charita Jones always knew the value of food. The oldest of four children of a single mother, she was responsible for cooking for the family. But no one could have predicted how far soul food would take the restaurateur now known as Momma Cherri.
Half a century later, Jones's fame has crossed the Atlantic. After taking Brighton by storm, and with a little help from Gordon Ramsay, the queen of soul food is about to release her own cookery book and DVD. African-American cuisine, conceived in a distant and harsher age, has its own celebrity chef.
The food, it should be stressed, is not for those obsessed with dieting. Jones's signature dish is jambalaya, a rice dish that "uses up whatever's in your kitchen". First developed in New Orleans, it uses gumbo file, a green powder that comes from the American sassafras tree. It is usually made with chicken, but after some lengthy research, Momma Cherri came up with her own fish and vegetable varieties.
Another soul food staple is Southern fried chicken, which Jones says has been made famous for all the wrong reasons by KFC. "Fried chicken was one of the first things I learnt to cook", says Jones. "There is no mystery to its preparation or cooking at all."
When Gordon Ramsay visited her restaurant he helped Momma Cherri reinvent a true stalwart of Southern cooking: the sweet potato. The salad he created, which uses a soured cream dressing, has been christened Cousin Gordon's Sweet Potato Salad, and is included in her new cookery book.
Jones, who came to Britain as a gospel singer, had no professional catering experience. She set up Momma Cherri's Soul food Shack in Brighton in 2001 "on pure faith". She had fed 30 foster children over the years, and thought she'd try out her home- cooking on the public, opening a small premises near the sea front and the Palace Pier.
Momma Cherri's quickly became a popular weekend spot, but the business was a shambles. A staff of young people preferred to hang out at the restaurant rather than work, and Jones was in so much debt that her prices had rocketed. The advertising budget was spent largely on ailing publications Jones took pity on. Urgent help was required.
Jones tried everything to get PR for the restaurant. She even applied to the Channel 4 series Wife Swap, thinking she could use it to plug her business, but when she was turned down she began to consider closing.
"I come from a theatrical background, so I know how to perform a show, but not necessarily a business show," Jones explains. "After two years it started to fall apart and I was ready to close the business."
So when she got a letter from Gordon Ramsay's production company saying they were looking for struggling restaurants to turn around, Jones was quick to respond. "I begged him to come, but when he tasted my food he couldn't see what the problem was. It was only when he saw how the finances were going that he realised we needed help."
Ramsay made sure the staff worked for their money, and the restaurant became one of the success stories of Gordon Ram-say's Kitchen Nightmares in 2004.
As a result, Brighton has become host to a restaurant phenomenon that celebrates the culinary legacy of the pre-civil rights era. Soul food comes from the home-cooking of African slaves. The best- known dishes are BBQ ribs, Jambalaya and fried chicken, but typical ingredients include black-eyed peas and sweet potato. The motto of her restaurant, "you might come in skinny but you aint goin' out that way", reveals the real ethos of soul food. Jones explains: "Soul food is about using what you have and not wasting a thing. If you cook a vegetable then you'll use the root, the stem and the leaves."
In a time when healthy eating has become an obsession, some have been sceptical of Jones's hearty meals. …