A veteran of notable Philadelphia restaurants such as the Commissary, La Terrasse, Roller’s and Jamey’s, Valerie Erwin had long thought about opening a restaurant, especially in her own neighborhood. But 10 years ago, when a restaurant became available near her Germantown home, she was at a loss as to what cuisine to offer.
A friend suggested a noodle theme, but noodles didn’t inspire her. Then Erwin’s sister came to the rescue. “Alethia said to me, ‘What about rice?’”
Alethia was referring to the rice-centric Geechee cuisine served to them as children. Erwin describes Geechee cuisine as “Southern cooking with some added layers … the sea coast, the use of rice as the staple grain, and the strong influence of the African food ways.”
Erwin’s mother’s family was from Charleston, South Carolina, and her father, who taught her how to cook, grew up in Savannah, Georgia. Both had strong traditions of Geechee cooking. But what attracted Erwin to Geechee cuisine was how “it could be interpreted in many ways,” she says. “There’s a direct African link in both Lowcountry and Caribbean cooking. Sometimes we explore that link. Sometimes we try to go back to the source. Sometimes we just do a riff on it.”
Geechee Girl Rice Café opened in 2003, focusing on ingredients that are fresh and local rather than strictly authentic. Erwin bought from neighborhood farms such as Wyck and Weavers Way, then Paul Tsakos and now Lancaster Farm Fresh. But there are some southern ingredients she misses. “The big one is fresh field peas,” she says. “You can get them by the bucketful in the South.”
When it comes to rice, she’s a stickler, buying only from Anson Mills in South Carolina. “They are the premier heirloom grain grower and purveyor in the country,” Erwin says. “They have the best philosophy of capturing heirloom grains and bringing them back into the market.”
Ten years later, Erwin’s sisters are still by her side—Alethia and Michelene are regular servers, and Lisa and Alexadria also help out. Now located in Mt. Airy, Geechee Girl Rice Café’s reputation has spread far and wide among local diners, critics like the Inquirer’s Craig Laban, and national correspondents from National Public Radio and the Food Network. Erwin has become a frequent speaker and advocate for the Southern Foodways Alliance and her own culinary literacy projects. And while the “girl” in the restaurant’s name refers to the picture in the Geechee Girl Rice Café logo, Erwin says, “If people think of me as the Geechee girl, that’s okay with me.”
Story by Jon McGoran.