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09 September 2016

Chef Todd Draws on Childhood Memories to Shape His Culinary Creations

(Chef Todd Richards is the executive chef at White Oak Kitchen & Cocktails in downtown Atlanta. Photo courtesy Chef Todd Richards.)
The memorable career of famed Atlanta Chef Todd Richards (pictured right) follows none of what one would expect from a culinary master.

Todd Richards, the executive chef at White Oak Kitchen & Cocktails in downtown Atlanta, has a history of turning around upscale restaurants with revamped menus that draw praise from customers and critics alike.

“I am a college dropout who has changed the world of food,” Richards said.

Originally hailing from Chicago, Illinois, Richards did not come from a family of professional cooks. His father, a computer programmer, wanted Richards to study criminal justice and pursue a career in law. Todd Richards’ mother was a biologist. Still, food and family meals were a big deal in the Richards home.

“My family had two different sides,” Richards said. “We had this very analytical side of biology and science, and data processing and programming. Then we had this very fascinating side of music and entertaining.

“All the birthdays, the holidays, anything that happened around our family life and our extended family life, we would be cooking outside with my dad,” Richards recalls. “My dad would knock on the door, and wake me up at four in the morning so we could go out there and get the grill started.”

Richards says his fond memories of those large family gatherings, some of which counted more than 300 guests, helped mold him into the chef he’s become today.

“Food is about memories,” Richards says. “Food is the simplest form to spark a memory in people.”

Chef Richards explains his philosophy on being a culinary curator thusly – his job is to stop restaurant patrons from thinking about their problems, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and the way of the world. Richards would rather invoke positive memories about the food he’s prepared, so that patrons spread the word and come back for a second serving.

The death of Richards’ mother in 1986 had a profound impact on his life. The large family gatherings organized by her fell by the wayside, leaving an empty void in Chef Richards’ heart and soul.

Richards says he was not fully engaged at either the University of Illinois Chicago or Georgia Tech, so he left both schools and turned to the culinary arts. He admits his passion for cooking initially stemmed from his attempt to find family again through food.

Richards’ culinary career started in 1991, at the Blue Ribbon Grill on Lavista Road. He then moved to the TomTom Bistro and Sushi Bar at Lenox Square, where he further honed his skills under the tutelage of certified Master Chef Tom Catherall. Following a series of stints at the Buckhead Ritz Carlton, The Shed in Glenwood Park and The Pig & The Pearl at Atlantic Station, Richards joined White Oak Kitchen & Cocktails in 2015.

Chef Todd, as he likes to be called, was named a James Beard Award finalist in 2013. The Beard Awards are the culinary industry’s highest honor. Chef Todd has also been featured on NBC’s Today Show and competed on the popular Food Network program Iron Chef.