The athlete’s meat and three
Top chefs share how to reinvent the traditional southern fare
A type of restaurant deeply rooted in Southern tradition, the often cafeteria-style meat and three is exactly what it sounds like: an eatery at which you can enjoy a meal of one main meat dish and three side dishes. At a typical meat and three, the multitude of options is perpetually rotating. But now, it’s picking up steam around the country—and getting a bit of a healthy makeover.
“This is not just lazy cafeteria food,” says chef Brian Morris, director of culinary operations at Hattie B’s Hot Chicken in Nashville. “This is a family-style, approachable way to experience the food ways and the cultural base of what it means to be in the south of the U.S., and you can trace it back in a lot of cases to West African, West Indian, and Caribbean roots.” Fried okra, fried chicken, and collard greens are just a few of the staples you’ll see on menus.
You can find the meat and three feeding local communities all over the Southeast. “If you go to Peaches in Athens [Georgia], you see a magistrate court judge, three black security guards, two construction workers who are Mexican, school teachers, and some weird chef with one eyebrow, and it’s an amazing gravitational pull of all parts of society that enjoy eating there,” says chef Hugh Acheson, a James Beard Foundation Award-winning Georgia chef and cookbook author.
Instead of grey, fried foods, chefs like Acheson and Ford Fry, a James Beard Foundation Award-winning restaurateur, chef, and owner of eleven Southern restaurants, turn to fresh, seasonal vegetables. Chef Fry recommends creating sides from “whatever is at the farmers market, just really simply prepared. Whether it’s an array of lady peas or sliced heirloom tomatoes or cucumbers.”
Chef Harold Moore lays it out clearly, “you could have wood-grilled salmon with a vinaigrette with spinach, lentils, and quinoa,” which are all on the menu at his modern meat and three restaurant, Harold’s Meat and Three in New York City.
It’s even possible to model a healthy meat and three after items on offer at one of Nashville’s most famous hot chicken joints. In addition to spicy, fried chicken, Hattie B’s serves grilled chicken, a cold vegetable and black-eyed pea salad, and braised collard greens. Chef Morris says a delicious third side for that meal would be roasted or pureed root vegetables.
There is one thing healthy eaters can take directly from the traditional meat and three. Chef Morris says, “in the South, we love our beans and peas and legumes. At meat and threes, you see red beans, white beans, field peas, purple hull peas, lady peas, black-eyed peas...if they’re not at the meat and three you’re going to, you might want to re-evaluate it.” Legumes are a great source of high-quality plant protein and a worthy choice for a side dish.
At one of chef Acheson’s four Georgia restaurants, Five and Ten, they incorporate legumes in their meat and three-like tailgate takeaway box. It includes a side salad of fresh, local field peas and peppers with a simple vinaigrette and herbs, which is something that can easily be made at home. Along with a pan-roasted quarter game hen and a slaw of local cabbage, carrots, creme fraiche, and cider vinegar, chef Acheson throws a biscuit in the box, but he says you can swap that for a third vegetable or a gluten-free carb option when making your own meat and three. “You could do cooked farro and fry some of it crisp, or bake it and leave the rest soft, and add olives, peppers, and a really light vinaigrette, kind of in true Greek style,” he says.
Similarly, on Sunday nights at JCT. Kitchen & Bar, one of chef Fry’s Atlanta restaurants, he offers what he calls a “fancy meat and three.” Some Sundays, this includes a blackened, Cajun-style fish as the main, which is full of both flavor and nutritional value. For other healthy meat choices, chef Fry recommends lean proteins that are tasty when prepared roasted, like chicken and pork loin.
However, meat isn’t the only way to go. “You can kind of take the idea of the meat and three and easily make it a vegetable-centric meal,” chef Acheson says, “You can have roasted tofu instead of the meat.”
The true beauty of the meat and three is in the options, which is why it is an ideal framework for a clean, healthy meal. Outside the South, “the meat and three is not super well-known yet,” says chef Moore, “Diners need a little bit of a tutorial and then once they do it, they’re like, ‘Oh this is great.’”