Southern Proper is one of the newer restaurants in South End, but don't let their age and location fool you. The mood is relaxed and the vibe is inviting, with just a hint of quirk. Inside you'll find accent walls lined with antique wallpaper, a ceiling with a beautiful variety of light fixtures, and walls made with a smoke-infused, raw pine imported from North Carolina, proving that it truly is the details that paint the big picture. When you walk in you immediately feel like you've been transported to another place and time.
Executive Chef and Owner Jason Cheek comes from generations of deep-rooted North Carolina tobacco farmers, and spent most of his early ages on a farm where dinner was picked from the fields and whole hogs slow cooked over coals. He drew from his roots to create the environment. "The place is covered in old family photos," he tells us. Cheek's family still lives in North Carolina and have been to the restaurant. "They feel at home in the space."
Cheek has been cooking for as long as he can remember, and it's been over a decade since he moved to Boston and landed in the kitchen with chefs Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette. Under their leadership at KO Prime, he learned the art of charcuterie and whole animal butchery. Cheek went on to work at Toro and Coppa, before leading operations at Sam’s and The Maiden, and eventually reunited with Oringer and Bissonnette for the highly acclaimed Little Donkey in Cambridge.
It was his desire to create a traditional southern experience in Boston that led him to opening Southern Proper, and he returned to his North Carolina roots to create the cuisine. From housemade pickles, to fermented hot sauce and smoked meats, Lowcountry-style seafood and legendary fried chicken, Cheek is providing guests with a taste of home. His home.
If you've spent Thanksgiving below the Mason-Dixon line, you'll know that nobody does it like the South where recipes are treated like currency and you bet Duke's mayonnaise makes its way into at least one dish. And while turkey has a leading role in the meal, it's the sides that take the center stage. "You would find turkey on my plate," Cheek tells us. "But it would be under a layer of green bean casserole and gravy for sure."
Lucky for us, he's here to help get these must-have southern side dishes on our Thanksgiving Day table. Southern Proper is offering take-away turkey dinners, for up to 8 – 10 people, with a slew of side options – from potatoes to yams, to biscuits, to vegetables. But get your order in today; the cut off date is Friday, November 16. Here's a run down of what we'll be picking to get you started on your own order.
Mac & Cheese with Pimento
Cheek prepares his version of the dish with large shells, Pave du Nord from his neighbor Formaggio Kitchen, and a sauce made from a béchamel and scratch-made pimento cheese – a staple in the south. "The key to the pimento cheese is Duke's mayo," he tells us. "I will only use Duke's."
We're not surprised. If you grew up in the south, you grew up on Duke's and nothing can replace it. But this is less about loyalty and more about taste (there is a difference.) Duke's is sugar-free, has vinegar for tang and paprika for taste, and contains more egg yolk than most commercial brands. The result is a rich and creamy, almost custard-like, condiment that can be used for just about anything, and is more than perfect for this savory side.
Cornbread Stuffing with Mirepoix & Chicken Fat
Cheek starts with a cornbread base, using a recipe that he developed specifically for the restaurant. "It contains good cornmeal, eggs, lots of sour cream and buttermilk," he tells us.
Good cornmeal? It is a thing. Traditional southern-style cornbread is made with a stone-ground cornmeal and not a trace of sugar or wheat flour. Historically, milled corn was left to ripen longer, yielding a higher natural sugar content, and was then stone-ground to produce desired textures. But with the industrial revolution came new milling techniques (and demand), and the corn was picked too soon, creating a coarse grind that required additives like sugar and wheat flour.
But thanks to tradition, and the return of small-scale milling, stone-ground cornmeal is affordable easy to find and reminding us yet again that it's the details that make the difference.
Cheek breaks up the cornbread and toasts it before combining with carrots, onion, chicken fat that's added in with stock, sage, parsley, butter and chives. "We call it dressing in the South," he smirks, "And add oysters." Clearly comments in remark to New Englander's calling it stuffing. The battle continues.
Brussel Sprouts with Pecan Butter
For years, brussel sprouts have been working hard to clean up their reputation, and the effort is paying off. A quick internet search will give you hundreds of creative recipes, many of which have been made for the holidays. Their place at the Thanksgiving table is not lost.
Cheek's version includes an incredible pecan butter, unlike anything we've ever tasted. "It's very simple," he says. "Just good quality butter whipped with fried pecans, sea salt and a little brown sugar."
He continues by pan-searing the brussel sprouts to draw out their natural sugars, adding caramelization and a sweet nutty flavor. Cheek prefers to keep the ingredients to a minimum so that he can and focus on technique to intensify the flavors. Delicious.
Southern Proper's Thanksgiving menu includes other traditional southern sides like butter and pepper grits, bacon braised collard greens and biscuits. And of course, there's the turkey. Cheek says they'll be brining them for 2 whole days before smoking and slow roasting, and then finishing them off in a very hot oven to crisp the skin. "I've learned a thing or two about how to cook turkey over the years," he tells us. "People accept that it’s going to be dry, it doesn’t have to be."
Any other advice? "You should always make gravy from turkey necks, " he continues. "Never skimp on the butter in your biscuits, and don't forget the pie." Southern Proper will be making all of the classics for you to order, including sweet potato, pecan, chocolate chess pie (Cheek's favorite), and apple. We don't think the south could be more proud.
Your order must be placed by Friday, November 16. They'll be available for pickup Wednesday November 21, between 9am and 2pm, and will come with easy, step-by-step instructions for reheating. Be sure to check out the menu for more information.
600 Harrison Ave., Boston, 857-233-2421, southernproperboston.com