Chef Jernard Wells is no amateur in the cooking world. The 42-year-old culinary artist has traveled all over the globe to expand his repertoire, written multiple cookbooks, opened different restaurants, competed in the World Food Championship, and appeared on shows like Chopped Junior and Food Network Star.
However, all those accomplishments weren’t enough to satisfy the self-proclaimed “Chef of Love.” So Wells ventured out in 2019 and took things one step further with his own cooking show, New Soul Kitchen, which airs Wednesdays at 9:30pm EST/8:30pm CST on CLEO TV.
Wells spoke with CASSIUSLife about the changes he made for his third season of NSK. But we also spoke about how he became the cooking wiz he is today, why he’s more than just another soul food chef, the importance of Black people knowing the value of their contributions to food worldwide, and more.
CASSIUSLife: So first things first, could you give us a quick breakdown on who Mr. Wells is, where he grew up and how he came to be this world renowned chef today?
Chef Jernard: Yeah. Who is Mr. Wells? I guess. Originally born and raised in Chicago, and my family moved to the South. We moved to Mississippi at a young age, and from there is where my culinary career really started. My great grandparents, they own about 200 acres of farmland. And that’s what my parents and I worked with them over the years of cultivating this land, growing it and raising it. And that’s where the true art of cooking and the love of food came from. And just being that my parents were entrepreneurs.
And so that was instilled in me without me realizing it was instilled in me. But it later on led me to open in my first restaurant up when I was 16 years old, out of my mom’s kitchen, of course, but did it the right way, had business licenses and everything. And from there made enough money to purchase my first brick and mortar, go to college and from college as people, oddly enough, I went to college to be an attorney while operating a restaurant. It wasn’t until I had a visitor one day that went to question me about my culinary art.
And that’s what sparked me into changing over and going into culinary art major in French and Cajun cuisine. From there I finished culinary art school, took some time, traveled around the world working for chefs for free, because one of the things I always like to tell people, Chef Jernard is not [only] a soul food chef.
Once I really got bit by the bug, I wanted to become a household name. So what’s the way [to achieve that]? Restaurants? If you can’t reach everybody, you reach them through writing, you reach them through books. And that’s what I started doing. And ultimately, one door led to another, one stepping stone lead to the next.
So going from opening restaurants to writing cookbooks, launching a manufacturing company to being later being discovered. My first opportunity was with Paula Deen and the largest audience I ever did show in front of, [which was] 15,000 people. And it was the beginning of a new era, who Chef Jernard, “The chef of Love,” is as you know.
CASSIUS: Even though you learned a lot of your cooking from the South, you don’t want to be pigeonholed restricted to this category of soul food. And obviously, the history of black people in America is just so intertwined. It’s not a separate history. It is history. It’s part of the fabric of the culture. How do you feel that our contributions are either watered down or diminished by getting always pushed into this separate category of soul food and not under the umbrella of American cuisine?
Chef Jernard: Exactly. I feel that, just like a lot of other things in life, the culture was created and founded on our ancestors’ backbones. And then when the culture became vastly enriched or became as they saw a vehicle for bringing in major income, then we got stapled and labeled with something to let the world know.
But if we date it back to slavery and our ancestors, it was us who were [cooking] in the kitchen. And it was us who did all of the legwork when it came to food. Not only did we have to cook for the field [slaves], but we had to cook for the house [slaves, too]. We had to cook for the plantation owners.
But what happens is just like anything else. When you start seeing it as a lucrative income, how can we strip this away from them? Because at the end of the day, we are the American cuisine. We are the culture of the food that you see.
CASSIUS: I love how you’re able to give education on the history of it. I don’t know if black chefs are either given the platform they deserve or if they are even encouraged to learn as much about how they’ve contributed to the richness of American cuisine. You like to actually go around and travel and go to schools and particularly reach out to young black chefs and young black students who are interested. Can you tell me more about that?
Chef Jernard: Yes, absolutely. And just to touch on what you said, the saying is still true. A person without knowledge will soon perish, and that’s one of the things which is just like everything else. The best way to keep us African American chefs on the back burner is to strip us of our knowledge and our history, or create it in such a way to make us feel that we don’t have to go after it. But I figured that a man who finds out, figures out or learns where he came from, then knows where his purpose is and where he’s set to go.
And that’s why I focus so much on trying to instill what’s in me and younger chefs that are coming up, because I think this is valuable information that we need that will help you even love your craft more when you learn and understand the history behind the craft. Not only did I want to create these cuisines, but I wanted to have the knowledge and know how this tied into me because we didn’t just wake up one day and these particular foods and all these styles just was thrusted up on us.
So when you strip the knowledge away from us, guess what you do. You strip the income away from us. And the biggest thing is, how do I obtain it? How do I get it back? Because cooking is beyond just me create throwing some ingredients together and serving it to you. It’s called culinary arts for a reason, because it’s an art form that we do.
CASSIUS: Now, correct me if I’m wrong. You’ve been married for over two decades now, right? And you’ve got a few kids. Nowadays, if people are together for five years, it’s seen as a huge win. Where do you think we’re losing it in terms of positive role models, and especially fathers stepping up?
Because there’s always this image of put forth of black fathers who are absent and who don’t care, but I think you’re a little bit different.
Chef Jernard: Exactly. And it’s one of the things I pride myself on, and I intentionally push through. Hey, yeah. Me and my wife, we’re going on 23 years of marriage. And one of the things is I always like to tell people no road is ever easy, no road is ever peaches and roses. So I don’t want to create that [image].
And I’m focusing life is to be an example to show others that there are other role models out here that doesn’t necessarily look like what you would typically see in the media or how we are portrayed. We’re one of the biggest races of culture that’s portrayed coming from broken homes, broken families, stripped apart.
[Dads] are not present in a house, and I want to show [that’s not always true]. I fight not just for my family but to show the world, and show others that look just like me, that it is possible… I want [our nine children] to be better than me, and that’s why I try so hard to instill as much as I can into them.
And to those [kids] that are not even my children, I try to encourage them to take care of your families. How can you say that? You graded anything if you’re not taking care of your family? Because we have to remember this. Everything that we do when it comes to success starts at home. If I’m the richest person, the most successful, most well known person and not taking care of my family, how successful am I?
CASSIUS: So you talk about teamwork and running things with the unit. But on season three of New Soul Kitchen, you’re now a solo act. Was it a David Ruffin move?
Chef Jernard: [laughs] On season one. I had an amazing co-host, Porsche [Thomas]. Season two, I had four young ladies, [Chefs Essie Bartels, Bren Herrera, Resha Purvis, and Ahki Taylor], that were amazing! Paving the way and opening doors for them is what I pride myself in doing and providing opportunities, because as they came on and got guests appearing on the show to cook with me, it provided an opportunity for the network to see them and [think], “Oh, man, she has potential. We should look at giving her show, giving her opportunity!”
And now we’re going into season three, with me having the solo opportunity. I’m solo, but I’m not really solo because I got over a million and some folks, you hear me! So I’m never alone. I’m never alone. But it gives me the opportunity to really just have fun instead of just cooking in parameters with whomever my guess is to fall into what they’re doing with season three, you’re going to see a lot of fun things.
You’re going to see me really cooking more, out-of-the-box… taking yesterday’s food and creating for today’s lifestyle. That’s what it’s really about, because we know, hey, we still got the same ingredients, the same protein that we’ve had our whole life. Taking those nostalgic meals and recreating them and flipping them for something cool and innovative that you could do today in a fraction of the time.
CASSIUS: Cool. Now we have a little bit of a change, I guess, in terms of the cast for the show, too. But also you put out a book. So just in case, people, I guess, wanted to read it like Southern Modified. Is that correct? And you’re not only a chef, you’re not only an educator and entrepreneur, too ?
Chef Jernard: Yeah. Southern Modified. And that’s one of the things with Southern Modified. I co-authored it with a great friend of mine, Denise Boutté, who’s from Louisiana. [W]hat we did was we took a lot of those nostalgic dishes from growing up in the South that you would typically eat. That was known where, hey, you consume a lot of this, you gain weight, and has a lot of trans fats in it. So I modified the recipes, so you can have your cake and eat it, too.
And that’s how I cook on New Soul Kitchen. That’s one of the reasons the show is tighter. I’m [actually] showing viewers how to cook it, because if you go through and you watch the show, you’ll notice that I really try to refrain from using a whole lot of processed over-the-top ingredients, salt, sugar, and things like that, and showing them how you use fresh ingredients, fresh herbs and spices to get that same great experience and taste what we were used to, what we grew up on.
Our parents didn’t cook with all the stuff we got wrapped up in, all of what we thought was convenience. That really wasn’t a convenience.
CASSIUS: So if I want to whip up a little bit of Chef Jernard’s cuisine at home, I could get my hands on Haute Cuisine. Is that right? Where do you see yourself in ten years, then? What’s your legacy?
Chef Jernard: [It’s available on] the website. Also, we’re available to Whole Foods across the United States. I launched Haute Cuisine ten years ago because I knew I had a dream of one day wanting to be on TV one day wanting to become a household name. So how do you achieve that?
My dream was to see my products on store shelves, where you can go in and grab a bottle of Chef Jernard’s product. And I looked at it from this standpoint: “If people that don’t look like me can do it, why can’t I do it?” I’m always thinking about the what’s next? So the key is playing chess in life.
We always forget you see when a person was born and you see when they left here, but it’s that dash in between. That’s all important is what you’ve done during that time frame of your life. And I so I endure because we know the race is not always given to the swift, but to those that endure.
So regardless of where it is in your life, it doesn’t have to be culinary arts because I don’t want people to think that culinary arts is just the mindset of the state of what I do. It applies to wherever it is that you’re doing in your field, whether it’s computer engineer technology, whether you’re a mechanic, the key is going in and garnering as much knowledge about that field that you can to be the best that you can be and always remember you’re not in competition with nobody else.
You’re in competition with yourself and that competition is being the best. You versus you.