Although Sam Fowler, 35, the chef/owner of The Best of Southern Cooking buffet has spent his life in Bridgeton, his grandmother's family was from Augusta, Ga. That's where his love of Southern cooking was born.
"I know it's a gift," Fowler says.
As a young man, Fowler spent his time hanging around the kitchen with his mom and grandmother.
"They didn't really teach me how to cook, but I watched them," Fowler says.
Around 12 years ago, the one-time barber decided to run his own business.
"I started from the side of the road," says Fowler about his first business, a barbecue stand on Route 47 in Millville.
His original smoker stands out back in the parking lot of his newest endeavor, a buffet restaurant on Landis Avenue in Vineland.
"That's my girl," Fowler says. "Without her, I wouldn't have this."
While the two main ingredients in Fowler's food are love and passion, his secret ingredient may be the pride that is evident in the food on display. Quick to smile, Fowler knows it all came from his family roots.
"With Southern food, with soul food, you cook with love," Fowler says.
While Fowler never cooked in a restaurant until he opened his own business, he learned almost everything he needed to know from the women in his family. The business parts of the restaurant, he learned along the way.
Although Fowler downplays the fact that he never went to a culinary school, his education at the hands of his mother and grandmother taught him how to take those underutilized parts of the animal and turn them into something tasty that his customers come back for again and again.
"Some people just don't want to try something different. But then, the people that do love it," Fowler says.
Fowler's menu offers many recognizable dishes, including chicken wings, meatloaf, ribs and BBQ chicken. But the soul of his menu is the lesser-known Southern specialties.
Chitterlings, the intestines of the pig, are what Fowler calls a delicacy. He cleans them three times then steams them down for four or five hours with his own seasonings - mainly garlic and onion. Crushed peppers are optional.
Pig's feet are boiled first to make them tender, then glazed and baked in the oven - another of Fowler's delicacies.
Butter steaks are cut from the shoulder of beef, then slow cooked for three hours with plenty of bell peppers and onions for flavor.
Whiting fish is sometimes breaded, sometimes baked, depending on the chef's whim on a particular day.
Smothered pork chops can be breaded or not, baked or fried, then sauced and finished in the oven. The long cooking process makes them fall-apart tender.
Side dishes are important to Southern-style cooking.
Baked mac 'n cheese might have a sharp cheese, a white cheddar and mozzarella combined the way Fowler likes it, in a "fluffy-style."
Trying to keep things healthier, he sometimes makes his collard greens with a ham hock and sometimes with a healthier smoked turkey wing.
Sweet yams begin with a thick, sweet syrup that first gets cooked down on the stovetop.
While homemade sweet tea is a popular drink from Fowler's kitchen, it's his homemade lemonade that he calls his signature drink, a cucumber-orange lemonade.
All desserts are homemade, such as the peach cobbler, banana pudding and sweet potato pie.
Fowler's BBQ sauce uses vinegar and mustard, a typical "wet mop" style of sauce common in the southern states.
"I don't have one recipe in here that was given to me by the family," Fowler says.
Instead, the menu at The Best of Southern Cooking, is Southern food done his way.
"I also don't really do the lard - that was back in grandma's days," Fowler says.
Fowler admits lard makes the best fried chicken and that a black cast iron pan doesn't hurt the process either.
"But I cook so much chicken, you can't use a black cast iron pan," Fowler says.
Fowler's previous business was in a residential section of Millville. When the former Downtown Buffet on Landis Avenue closed after more than 10 years, Fowler jumped at the chance to have a restaurant with more foot traffic in the recently renewed downtown business area of Vineland.
There also is plenty of parking in the back - another plus.
Always the smart businessman, Fowler has turned his ideas into written recipes, after years of trial and error, with an eye on starting a franchise.
He knows consistency in the food will be an important key to success.
When the company that produced the dry rub he used stopped making it, Fowler simply went into the kitchen and invented his own seasoning. His spirit of entrepreneurship has served him well.
Another of Fowler's goals is to someday see his sauces and spice mixtures on the grocery store shelves.
"If they can do it, I can do it," Fowler says. "It only takes one good idea."
The decor of the restaurant has changed little from the previous buffet in the same location.
"The only change is with the food," Fowler says. "And the atmosphere."
When asked what makes his cooking "Southern," Fowler has one simple response - "Me."
When you eat it, you will taste the difference.
Adding some nightlife
Big plans are in the works for special events such as gospel night and poetry night, since the restaurant's first jazz night in January was such a big hit. Call the restaurant for times and dates.
Mixing up choices
While basic Southern cooking is always on the menu, Fowler also adds spice to the buffet choices with some Caribbean and Spanish dishes. Expect to see selections such as stewed chicken, jerk chicken and dirty rice from time to time.
Straight from the South
Some of the most inspired parts of Southern cooking are the side dishes, including mac 'n cheese, okra and green beans.