For the past six years, Chef Yealang Smith has been working to find a wider audience for her soul food. Now she’s only five months away from delivering Soul to the Hollywood Professional Building, and it’s thanks to catering.
“Catering has been the backbone of my restaurant experiences,” says Smith. “Six years ago, we catered event for a company called CIM.” That night, Smith found an unexpected advocate in CIM Group Principal Jeff Kreshek, who loved her fried chicken. Kreshek showed up at Soul Folks Café, Smith’s spot on Traction Avenue in the Arts District, and ordered the Laker’s All-Star Special, a massive combo meal involving fried snapper and peach cobbler. His first taste of soul was clearly no fluke. Six months later, Kreshek called Smith, saying, “We have an opportunity for you.” In case you’re unfamiliar with CIM Group, it’s one of the largest real estate funds in Los Angeles, so this was a fortuitous call, to say the least.
Smith was born in North Carolina and moved to Los Angeles when she was six months old, so her mother could teach at USC. When Smith was 10 or 11, she came home from school, only to discover that her mother had thrown away every processed food in the house. This informed Smith’s belief in healthy ingredients. “When people think of soul food, people think their heart is clogging up,” says Smith. “We can get these amazing flavors and not kill you.”
Smith has “flipped the script on the traditional Southern menu.” At Soul, she plans to fry chicken, but also grill chicken. “I’m a grill master, grilling and smoking,” says Smith. “I do these different techniques. I love marinating and searing. Bobby Flay, watch out.”
“Since I’ve had a few years to focus and get ready to launch Soul, I can’t wait to unleash it,” she says. Soul has become so consuming that when Smith goes to sleep, she dreams recipes.
Smith has been doing a lot of dreaming. She’s developed a massive menu, saying, “There’s so much I want to cook…I’m going to be dropping bomb ass specials on people…I buy seasonal, whatever’s popping, whatever’s freshest.”
Soul will be open 24 hours a day, for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
At breakfast, “You’ve gotta have banana pancakes.” Smith is also “an omelet crazy person. There’s nothing like great eggs and real home fried potatoes.” That means real potatoes sautéed with onions, peppers and garlic in a black skillet. There will also be bacon and turkey and chicken sausages.
Later in the day, Smith will smoke baby back ribs and make “outrageous” New Orleans style seafood gumbo with fresh crab, chicken and Andouille sausage served over brown rice. Smith has been experimenting with her fried chicken, but won’t be satisfied until she discovers the “most non-harmful oil.”
For dessert, Smith has mastered peach cobbler, but she found another woman to bake “bomb tarts. Your feet curl when you eat them.” Think sweet potato, pecan and lemon, plus “this outrageous little bread pudding bite.” That’s not all. Smith will also serve Southern style teacakes, lemon meringue, chocolate cake and apple pie.
To drink, Soul will pour sweet tea and homemade lemonade. “I’m talking real lemons where you get pulp,” says Smith. “You might come across a seed or two.”
Soul will have two full bars, specializing in Southern style cocktails, including “a mint Julep unlike any other.” “My family has a history of bootleggers, so I’ve got liquor in my blood,” says Smith. “My family used to make corn liquor in the backyard and sell it.”
The location: “The Hollywood Professional Building, built in the 1880s, the first high-rise on Hollywood Boulevard.” It was unoccupied for 31 years before CIM decided to redevelop it. “Because that space is so old, it has vaulted ceilings and brick walls,” says Smith. “You feel like you’re in New York City…It’s not going to be fussy, it’s going to be clean, artsy. Art and music are very important to my soul.”
When it comes to service, Smith said, “My goal is to have an international serving staff, really take time to train the staff to anticipate, really take care of people, keep it real.”
Smith also plans to launch a line of products, primarily marinades and sauces, saying, “Not only do you have Soul in the restaurant, you can take it home.”