In Pursuit of Edna

First episode of VPM-produced Edna Lewis documentary airs on July 19.

Life-altering moments, both good and bad, are often said to come in threes.

For “Setting the Table” podcast host and Style food editor Deb Freeman, her holy trinity moment centered around Virginia-born chef and cookbook author Edna Lewis.

“In the past year, I had three very tangible Edna Lewis moments,” says Freeman.

From talking about Orange County’s 2023 Edna Lewis food trail in an article for Virginia Living to writing about Lewis in a piece for the magazine While Entertaining, to seeing Lewis’ face on a postcard in New York restaurant Gage & Tollner, Freeman kept coming back to the chef.

So when Richmond-based, Emmy award-winning Field Studio producers Hannah Ayers and Lance Warren approached Freeman this January with an idea for an Edna Lewis documentary, “it was an immediate ‘yes’” says Freeman.

“Finding Edna Lewis,” will air as an eight-episode digital series on VPM’s new YouTube channel, “Culture,” before being broadcast as a one-hour TV show in February 2025. [Disclosure: VPM owns Style Weekly].

“It was pretty easy to say okay to this project, it checks so many boxes,” says Steve Humble, VPM’s Chief Content Officer. “We are really about telling the stories that matter to this community, focusing on local stories and local storytellers as much as possible.”

A Virginia Story

Born in 1916 in the Freetown community of Orange County, Virginia, Edna Lewis grew up surrounded by the bounty of the earth.

“Country eggs do not need to be refrigerated,” she writes in one of her four cookbooks, “In Pursuit of Flavor” (1988). “At home in Virginia, my sister just sets the eggs down in a cool place after she gathers them and because they are so fresh, they keep for days.”

During the Great Migration, Lewis left home — at only 16 — and headed to New York. She worked first as a laundress and then as a seamstress before making her way onto the culinary scene. At 33, she served as head chef at French-inspired restaurant Café Nicholson, where celebrities from Marlon Brando to Salvador Dali would savor her food.

“My hope with this documentary is that this will be a major step for the non-foodie community to learn about how fascinating this woman was,” says Freeman.

“She had such an interesting life. She was part of the Communist Party, she moved to New York and was cooking for famous people, she became an executive chef [at Gage & Tollner] in her 70s. It’s just such a beautiful story waiting for the greater populous to explore.”

Ayers and Warren, too, hope that their documentary will elucidate just how important Lewis was in shaping American culinary culture. “We have been struck that she is not only under- known, she really is too little known,” says Warren.

With Freeman as host/executive producer and Warren, Ayers and other local filmmaker Alec Gary behind the scenes, “Finding Edna Lewis” takes viewers on a journey through the seasons of Lewis’ life.

“With a documentary you’re obviously adding that visual medium and I haven’t been thinking in a visual way while writing and podcasting,” says Freeman. “Ideas I had two months ago are now completely different — and they’re even better.”

While the team has already traveled out of state to capture key moments in Lewis’ life, their narrative framework always leads them back to Virginia. In one episode shot this April, Freeman meets with Lewis’ niece Nina Williams-Mbengue at Bethel Baptist Church on Petersburg Road in Orange County for the dedication of the Edna Lewis historical marker.

The plaque memorializes both Lewis and Freetown, a community founded by formerly enslaved persons, including Lewis’ grandfather, Chester. It was here, only two generations removed from slavery, that Lewis thrived, growing, pickling and cooking alongside her family members.

Even after she moved north, Lewis would visit her hometown every summer says Warren. “She’d be testing her cookbooks and calling her sister and brother to fact check ‘Is this how we did it?’”

Through her research, Freeman has become intimately familiar with the recipes and stories woven into Lewis’ cookbooks.

“She is putting Virginia food­ — Southern food — on par with any other cuisine in a very unapologetic way,” says Freeman. “She lays out the case for why certain things are cooked in certain seasons, and proves that Southern food isn’t some stereotypical greasy, fatty food. There are all these facets to it.”

Chef Leah Branch outside of The Roosevelt at 623 N. 25th St. Photo by Scott Elmquist

Southern food, American food

Before the rage of farm-to-table dining, before the slow food movement — even before Alice Waters, there was Miss Lewis.

Lewis’ recipes are simple — no sous vide or tweezers necessary — but they rely heavily on the quality of the ingredients available: basil from the garden, chickens you keep yourself, fruit picked fresh and only used out of season in carefully preserved compotes. For Leah Branch, executive chef at The Roosevelt, this simple instruction has shaped, and continues to influence, the way she thinks about food.

“There’s often that desire for chefs to chef things up and set yourself apart,” says Branch. “But there is a lot of depth and complexity and beauty in using good ingredients. [Edna] made me come back to that and appreciate that really, you just need to serve people good food.”

This February, Branch and Freeman hosted an Edna Lewis dinner at The Roosevelt, honoring the late, great grand dame of Southern cooking with a multi-course meal of her best recipes.

In the first episode of the documentary, the production team captures the joy of this dinner, filming Freeman and Branch in the kitchen making Lewis’ pan-fried quail with country ham together in advance of the event.

These moments of connection between host and interviewee are critical, say the filmmakers. While the cookbooks provide much fodder, including stories and detailed accounts of everything from what it looks like to do a hog killing to the role of the church in the community, there is very little in the way of archival material (videos, interviews) that capture Lewis in her prime.

This archival dearth is actually a boon, says Warren. “If you only rely on the archive, you will miss so much of that abiding humanity and unexpectedness you get from speaking with people who knew [her],” says Warren. “It’s been essential to talk with people who knew or who were inspired by her.”

Lewis passed away in 2006 at the age of 89. Freeman’s hope is that while Lewis did not receive the level of acclaim and recognition of chefs like Julia Child in her life, she will continue to be honored — and discovered — posthumously.

Branch adds that she is still able to be surprised by Lewis. For The Roosevelt’s Edna Lewis dinner, Branch set out to make Lewis’ chicken and dumplings, but was wary about the recipe. “It’s pretty much boiled chicken with very simple dumplings, with a little bit of brown sugar in them,” says Branch. “I thought, ‘Am I really going to serve this bowl of chicken stock to these people?”

And then she tasted it.

“It was a revelation on chicken and dumplings, it was incredible. It ended up being a beautiful dish I’ll never forget,” says Branch.

The first of eight episodes of “Finding Edna Lewis” airs Friday July 19 on VPM’s YouTube channel, Culture.

Missed The Roosevelt’s big dinner? Get a taste of Edna at the bar, where you can sip on a clarified ambrosia punch —“silky, smooth and boozy” — inspired by Lewis’ ambrosia salad recipe. Available while it’s warm outside.

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