Fanning the Flame
Fertel’s $1M Planned Gift Will Support Southern Foodways Alliance
Each fall, the SFA honors an unsung hero or heroine with the Ruth Fertel Keeper of the Flame Award, a commissioned documentary film depicting how the honoree has carried forward a Southern foodways tradition of note.
Philanthropist, author and educator Randy Fertel, son of the late Ruth Fertel – founder of Ruth’s Chris Steak House – invested in the SFA’s first Keeper of the Flame film made by Joe York, who earned his graduate degree at UM’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture.
York’s film showcased the life and work of Kentucky bean and tomato seed saver, Bill Best, who was honored with the Keeper of the Flame award in 2003. Click here to read about other Ruth Fertel Keeper of the Flame recipients.
“We’ve grown Randy’s initial investment in our film program to yield over 125 films — all about the men and women who make, grow and serve great Southern food,” said Melissa Hall, an SFA associate director.
Fertel, who is well known and respected in culinary, educational and nonprofit circles in New Orleans and New York, said he hopes his planned gift will support the award and the history it preserves, while honoring his mother in perpetuity.
“She was famous for her 1,800-degree broilers, so the flame metaphor was right on target, right on the nail,” said Fertel, who began busing tables, making salads and butchering meat in his mother’s restaurant at age 15.
“The fit was not just for the metaphor but also for the real mission of SFA, which is to promote racial reconciliation by resolving issues over food, bringing people together at the dinner table,” he continued. “That’s what my mother did too.”
Fertel remembers a story related by Lolis Edward Elie, an attorney in New Orleans during the early civil rights movement: how he was the first African American to dine at the original Chris Steak House, effectually integrating it. When a white customer threatened to leave “if that boy eats here,” Ruth Fertel showed him the door.
“She was willing to deal with the consequences,” Fertel said. “So my gift has a lot to do with celebrating my mother’s career with her hot broilers and her generous approach to race.
“There’s kind of a synchronicity here because (SFA co-founder) Lolis Eric Elie, the son of Lolis Edward Elie, brought me to SFA’s first barbecue conference. He had written his book on barbecue, Smokestack Lightning, so it was an event that was very special to him,” Fertel said.
Fertel eventually became manager and director of marketing for the business, which had expanded worldwide before being sold to a restaurant conglomerate in 1999.
He enjoyed hearing customers reminisce.
“People would come up to me and say, ‘You know Randy, when I was a little kid, this was my favorite restaurant; I always wanted to come here for my birthday. Then when I was in high school, this is where I took my prom date. When I started dating my future wife, this is where I brought her to impress her and when she announced she was pregnant, this is where we came. And now it’s my kids’ favorite restaurant,’” he recalled.
“And so breaking bread becomes this holy experience that brings people together to share thoughts and feelings. If the hot plate warms you up, who knows where the conversation is going to go?”
Fertel has supported the SFA’s work since that first event in 2002.
“Some of our most ardent supporters are not graduates of this university. We call those donors ‘friends,’ and that’s certainly the case with Randy Fertel,” said Chancellor Glenn Boyce. “We are most grateful for his vision in designating this generous gift in honor of his mother and for his longtime support of SFA’s mission.”
Fertel is president of both the Fertel Foundation and the Ruth U. Fertel Foundation. He holds a doctorate from Harvard University, where he received a student-voted teaching award. He has taught English at Harvard, Tulane University, LeMoyne College, the New School for Social Research and the University of New Orleans.
He is a prolific and popular essayist with recent items in Smithsonian, Gastronomica, Gilt Taste, Creative Nonfiction, Tikkun, New Orleans Magazine and Kenyon Review, which published his Pushcart Prize-nominated essay on Hurricane Katrina. He has published two award-winning books, The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak: A New Orleans Family Memoir which traces the history of Ruth’s Chris, and A Taste for Chaos: The Art of Literary Improvisation.
As president of the Fertel Foundation, Fertel fosters projects related to the arts and education. The foundation, his site (fertel.com) notes, focuses on initiatives from which new communities and new insights may emerge, and those that challenge entrenched communities of power.
Additionally, Fertel is devoted to education in Louisiana, providing scholarships and support to high-achieving, economically deprived students in the New Orleans region. The year after Hurricane Katrina, the Ruth U. Fertel Foundation pledged over $1 million in grants to assist New Orleans schools and educational resources.
Nikki Neely Davis, executive director of development, said she is grateful to Fertel for his generosity.
“I have enjoyed getting to know Randy through his involvement with the SFA and I greatly appreciate his commitment to seeing this important work continue for generations to come,” she said.
The SFA documents, studies and explores the diverse food cultures of the changing American South. A member-supported non-profit institute of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the university, the SFA sponsors scholarship, mentors students, stages symposia, collects and shares oral histories, and produces and publishes books, films and podcasts.
Over the years, SFA director John T Edge and Fertel have become friends. They have found common purpose and worked toward common causes.
“Randy’s belief in our work has inspired SFA in so many ways,” Edge said. “We’re honored to help carry forward his mother’s legacy, and to do that work while bridging divides born of racism and other social ills. 125 films after we made that first film, we recognize that all this became possible because Randy got excited about our work and invested generously. Thanks to this transformative gift, our work continues.”
By Bill Dabney