Story by Nina Parikh and images by Joy Parikh
This article first appeared in the October/November issue of eat. drink. MISSISSIPPI.
Thirteen-year-old Simms Powell (@tinychefsimms on Instagram) picked up a knife at four years of age and has been going strong ever since. With most kids, they find an interest for a while and move on to another, but Simms keeps building on the same theme.
It started with wanting to try everything in the produce section at the grocery store. Simms touched and smelled everything. He wanted to help in the kitchen. And he loved raw oysters at four years old. He wants to taste everything, cook whatever he finds intriguing, but he also wants to know how things grow and then grow them in his garden, and he’ll fish any body of water and attempt to make every fish he catches taste good.
He regularly talks with and learns from Jackson’s finest restaurants’ chefs and most of the vendors at the High Street Farmers Market know him by name. Over a bowl of ramen in the Fondren district, in between unfocused, silly young teenager talk, I interviewed my nephew – or “chephew” as I call him, Tiny Chef Simms Powell – to learn why he has such a great fascination with food.
Simms, do you remember when you first picked up a knife?
I don’t remember how old I was, but maybe three or four, and my Dad always made salads and I’d watch him chop vegetables. I think the first thing I chopped was a cucumber with a miniature cleaver. It was the only knife that was small enough that I could hold. I still have it. Maybe I should frame it.
Now that you use a knife like a professional, is there anything you find great joy in chopping or cutting?
I hate cutting garlic, onions, and shallots. But it’s pretty satisfying to cut pandan jelly. And if I have a really sharp knife, slicing chashu pork. I also really love smashing cucumbers and then chopping them to make Asian cucumber salad.
What motivates you to cook?
Because I want to try new foods, I browse YouTube for interesting food and chefs and then lots of times we don’t have restaurants that serve that type of food, so I’ll ask my Mom to drive me to Mr. Chen’s Market, Valdez Market, Patel Brothers, Aladdin Mediterranean Grocery, Whole Foods, or the farmers market so I can get the ingredients and try making it myself.
What’s your favorite type of cuisine?
I really like Korean food because it’s savory and rich and spicy and has fermented flavors. I also love Filipino food (his maternal grandmother is from the Philippines) because it has a great mash up of flavors – vinegar, garlic, shrimp paste and fish sauce. It’s like a mix of Spanish and Chinese and Indonesian and American foods and flavors. I also like Thai food, but I don’t have much experience yet in cooking it.
I didn’t realize that Korean was your favorite, but I guess that explains why you make your own kimchi. I’ve watched you before, but I’m not sure of all the steps and what goes in it. Tell me about how you make it.
Well, it depends on what kind you make – the kind you cook with or the kind you snack on and use as a condiment?
How about the one you cook with?
Okay. Well, the ingredients are napa cabbage, gochugaru chili flakes, Korean pear because it has enzymes that break down things like meat and cabbage and it has sugar to feed on as its fermenting, onion, rice flour and water. I don’t know the amounts. I’m still experimenting to make it how I like it. But it’s pretty good. So you’d put all the ingredients (except for the cabbage) in the blender to make a paste. You have to brine the cabbage overnight. Then you put the paste on each leaf and place them in a jar that can breathe (otherwise you’ll have to burp it regularly). And it’ll sit in a cool, dark place for two days to a week. The longer it sits the sourer it will be. And then you refrigerate it. It will continue to get sour, but a lot slower. If you want the snacking kind of kimchi, you’d cut the cabbage differently and add carrot, daikon radish, ginger and green onions. I taught Chef Paz at Sunflower Oven how to make kimchi. She said she only really knew how to bake and I’m not very good at baking. So I taught her kimchi and she teaches me to bake. She even used the kimchi in their daily quiche!
Besides the chefs at Sunflower Oven, what other chefs inspire you?
Chef Hunter at Elvie’s and Chef Sean (but he’s now in New Orleans). Chef Sean and I like similar things like breaking down animals and he’s also part Filipino like me, so we have that in common. At Elvie’s, I like that Chef Hunter has dishes that combine things I would never think of. Their new fall menu has a tuna crudo which has a coconut curry sauce – at least I think it’s coconut – I would never think of that. It’s so good. I also like the vibe in the restaurant, it’s like a petite restaurant – it’s professional, but relaxed.
Other chefs that inspire me that don’t live here are Senyai Grubs and Joshua Weissman. Senyai Grubs likes all kinds of simple, unfussy foods. He’s like me – just likes food and wants to try things. He lives in Thailand right now. And Joshua Weissman cooks all kinds of cuisines and he’s really funny. I have his cookbook and it has my favorite bimbimbap recipe I’ve tried. His gojuchang recipe is perfect with bean sprouts and carrots as condiments. It’s so simple, but so perfect. I also took inspiration from his ramen and pho recipes and mixed his with a pho recipe from a Vietnamese grandma. He also has this Taiwanese popcorn chicken and I tossed it in a Filipino adobo sauce. It’s chicken battered in a wet batter of potato starch (all fried chicken should use potato starch) and tossed with fried basil leaves and coated in some leftover adobo sauce I cooked down just because I had it. Adobo has soy sauce, vinegar, crushed whole peppercorns, and garlic. It’s tangy, salty, and garlicy.
Do you like fusion cooking?
Not really. But I’m still learning and experimenting. I don’t think most restaurants do well with fusion cooking, but I’m also not great at it. But sometimes something will work out.
I know you’ve had a garden out back since you were little. Why did you start it?
So I can grow stuff that I can’t buy in stores. And also what you grow usually tastes better like tomatoes and cucumbers and radishes and you can grow so many varieties. At the grocery store, there’s usually only one kind. I grow different lettuces, heirloom tomatoes, varieties of cucumbers and eggplants, peppers, ground cherries…
Will you have a fall/winter garden?
I’m too late for a fall garden, but I have plans for winter. I want to grow some of my favorite root vegetables like the Tokyo Globe (I think that’s what it’s called). It’s a small white Japanese turnip. And this giant sugar turnip from Sweden. It’s massive and it’s yellow inside and out. And wasabi radish, daikon radish, globe carrots, ox heart carrots, a couple cabbages and lettuces, kale, mizuna greens, and colossal collards which can get three feet long, two feet wide, and 12 feet tall! And parsnips – I just learned they grow well in gravel because they elongate to reach the water below the gravel which makes them long and skinny so they won’t be tough. Baker Creek Seeds in Arkansas is my favorite place to buy seeds. They have amazing heirlooms.
What have you foraged recently?
On our summer trip on the East Coast, I picked lots of wild blueberries. They have the highest amount of vitamins and antioxidants. We have them here, but they’re not very prevalent and other creatures get to them before we have a chance to. I also picked wild muscadines, possum grapes, elderberries and elderflowers last month. And I did some urban foraging for some figs. I’m waiting for the pawpaws, persimmons and maypops to get ripen! But I’m worried about the maypops because of the caterpillars and the drought. You’ve had a maypop, right? They’re like really small, super sweet passion fruits.
What do you forage around here at other times of the year?
Mulberries, mushrooms – chanterelles, lions’ mane, chicken of the woods, oyster, and cauliflower.
You like to fish, too. What do you like to catch?
Anything that swims and bites! Catfish, sunfish, bass, crappie, bowfin, gar, carp. I like to catch gar because they fight hard and because I want to prove that there’s no such thing as “trash fish.” People say that carp, fresh drum, gar, and bowfin are trash fish and not worth cooking. I disagree, but I do agree with the bowfin, though.
What are your dreams for the future?
I used to want a food truck, but they don’t seem to be successful in our area and I’m not sure I could showcase how I like to cook in a food truck. So instead of saving up $50,000 for a food truck, I’ll use that toward a restaurant. I want to have seasonal foods and cook a lot of seafood. Similar to Elvie’s.
I also want to fish!
And also make videos about fishing and cooking. I haven’t really seen many videos of people in the south fishing and cooking. And also not very many southern foraging videos. I only see pictures on Instagram. So I might make foraging videos, too!
Anything else, Simms?
Thanks for the ramen. (Simms is up and running, acting silly and telling jokes with his cousin – my son – without skipping a beat. He is still a pre-teen, after all!)