Mama J’s Kitchen
The Soul of Richmond, Virginia
A tiny restaurant in the Historic Jackson Ward neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia gets a James Beard nomination!
Story by Ginger Warder
For more than a decade, Mama J’s Kitchen has been a local favorite in the Richmond culinary community. Known for its authentic soul food—the fried chicken and catfish are to die for—Mama J’s was an early pioneer in helping to revitalize the African-American neighborhood of Jackson Ward.
When co-owner Lester Johnson got the call telling him Mama J’s had been nominated for a James Beard award for outstanding service, “It was definitely a welcome surprise to be nominated,” he says. Defined as “a restaurant in operation for five or more years that demonstrates consistency and exceptional thoughtfulness in hospitality and service,” the award confirmed what local patrons already knew: a meal at Mama J’s is like a meal with family.
Long compared to dinner at Grandma’s house—which is exactly where the restaurant’s inspiration and recipes originated—the restaurant’s family vibe can be directly attributed to Velma Johnson, the real Mama J. One of 14 children, Johnson grew up helping her mother and grandmother prepare large family meals, learning the recipes that are still used today at Mama J’s. The nickname came from her daughters-in-law and—while it was her son Lester Johnson and his friend Jonathan Mayo who came up with the idea to open the restaurant—Velma Johnson is the namesake as well as the public face of the operation. She’s also largely responsible for the restaurant’s warm and welcoming atmosphere.
In every city south of the Mason-Dixon Line, it’s possible to find trendy restaurants and award-winning chefs with Southern sensibilities offering upscale presentations of everything from braised greens to grits. Thanks to celebrity chefs and cookbook authors like Carla Hall and Toni Tipton-Martin, soul food is now firmly in the national spotlight, but its roots date back to the days of slavery, when African-Americans created a cuisine from the limited ingredients they could grow, catch, or kill themselves. It was renowned Virginia-born African-American chef, Edna Lewis, who first introduced this style of cooking to the masses at her New York restaurant, and later, through her cookbooks.
The soul food revival has culinary fans seeking authentic dishes and traditional preparations like those at Mama J’s. In addition to mainstays like pork chops, fried chicken, and catfish, diners enjoy homemade mac and cheese, candied yams, collard greens, cornbread, homemade cakes, and cobblers. Richmond’s African-American entrepreneurs have played a major role in the re-emergence of this cuisine.
In the early 20th century, Richmond was known as “the Harlem of the South,” and the Jackson Ward neighborhood was the epicenter of African-American culture in the region. One resident, Maggie Walker was the first African-American woman to run a bank. Another, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, started his musical career dancing in local bars. The historic Hippodrome Theater, originally opened as a vaudeville and movie theater, went on to become a major venue for African-American performers from Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald to Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong.
Visit Richmond today and you can still catch a show at the beautifully restored Hippodrome, take a stroll past the statue of Bojangles, and visit the museum dedicated to Maggie Walker. For an edible tour, visit during the annual Black Restaurant Experience, a week-long culinary event held in the early spring.
Although Mama J’s did not win the James Beard award in the final judging, the fact that it received a nomination in a foodie-centric city full of fine dining restaurants is a testament to both its great service and the fact that soul food is no longer strictly a niche or ethnic cuisine. There has always been a wait at this small eatery that doesn’t take reservations, and that’s sure to increase now with its national recognition—but it’s worth the wait!