The legacy is in the soil

Acclaimed chef/farmer and CASFS apprenticeship graduate Matthew Raiford will share his heritage-based approach to food and farming during an on-campus event

Matthew Raiford sitting at a picnic bench on his farm with a bowl and fresh produce
Matthew Raiford's recipes are a modern take on Gullah Geechee traditions, inspired by his experiences on his family's organic farm outside of Brunswick, Georgia. Photo by Siobhán Egan and Bevin Valentine Jalbert
the cover of Bress 'n' Nyam
Image courtesy of Countryman Press

Nationally renowned chef and farmer, “CheFarmer,” Matthew Raiford will visit UC Santa Cruz’s Cowell Ranch Hay Barn on August 25 from 7:30–9 p.m. to discuss his new cookbook, Bress ‘n’ Nyam: Gullah Geechee Recipes from a Sixth-Generation Farmer. The book features a collection of 100 heirloom recipes that pay homage to Gullah Geechee food, an essential cuisine of American history that has nurtured Raiford’s family for seven generations.

Raiford is a 2011 graduate of the Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) Apprenticeship in Ecological Horticulture at UC Santa Cruz and a 2018 James Beard Foundation semifinalist for Best Chef in the Southeast. His culinary approach is inspired, in part, by his experiences farming lands passed down from his great-great-great grandfather in coastal Georgia, a region where descendants of enslaved Africans, speaking the African Creole language called Gullah Geechee, came together to make extraordinary food.

“I grew up eating a lot of vegetables—a lot—and then we ate a lot of fish, oysters, shrimp, low country boil,” Raiford told Savannah Now. “So many people think that Black cooking is all ribs and chicken, but it isn’t, not in Gullah and the land I come up in.”

Bress ‘n’ Nyam, which means “bless and eat” in Gullah Geechee, shares Raiford’s recipes organized by elemental beginnings. An earth section focuses on recipes anchored by grains and produce, while water, wind, nectar, and spirits highlight seafood, red meat, poultry, desserts, and cocktails, respectively. The flavors are Raiford’s own modern take on family traditions, and his recipes stem from a deeply rooted sense of place. 

Raiford’s connection to the land started with growing up on his family’s organic farm, Gilliard Farms, outside of Brunswick, Georgia. 

“I didn’t know that people shopped at the grocery store for fruits and vegetables until I was an adult because we grew everything,” he told Southern Living. “I thought the store was where you went for flour and sugar, those kinds of things.”

After initially embarking on a military career, Raiford attended culinary school and the CASFS apprenticeship program before returning home to run the family farm with his sister, Althea. Sustainable farming practices, like those taught through CASFS apprenticeships, came naturally to him, thanks to the traditions of his Gullah Geechee heritage.

In the introduction to Bress ‘n’ Nyam, Raiford writes that, at CASFS he “learned about seeds, organic pest control, and food justice—all things I knew from growing up but had never considered in an academic setting.” 

These days, Raiford draws frequently upon the wisdom of his ancestors in managing Gilliard Farms. Bress ‘n’ Nyam includes excerpts from a collection of family letters dating back to the 1940s that document a wealth of hard-earned knowledge about what to plant and when, along with weather conditions and which crops provided best for the family.    

“My great-grandmother would write to my nana about what they were taking to market, what they were planting,” Raiford told Bon Appétit. “I wanted to put our stories and our lived history in there. I wanted people to see our Blackness as our humanity.”  

Bress ‘n’ Nyam celebrates this legacy, as does Raiford’s work each day at Gilliard Farms. By applying heritage-based techniques to his stewardship of familial lands, Raiford is regenerating soils, supporting health, and preserving culture for future generations. 

And now, members of the Santa Cruz community will have a unique opportunity to learn from his work. Stacy Philpott, director of the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, said the center is proud to see Raiford return to campus. 

“Matthew’s passion for growing, preparing, and providing food and his commitment to community really embody so much of what CASFS works for, and it is an honor to have him back to UC Santa Cruz,” Philpott said. 

Be sure to reserve your ticket for Raiford’s August 25 book talk and signing event, which is called “The Legacy is in the Soil: An Evening with CheFarmer Matthew Raiford.” This event is hosted by CASFS and Bookshop Santa Cruz. The ticket package costs $45 and includes one ticket for entry and one copy of Bress ‘n’ Nyam. Full event details and registration information are available on the UC Santa Cruz events calendar.