Widespread Panic inspires global soul food on South Arroyo

By Frier McCollister

A common query to Kevin and Kari Irvin is, “Who the hell is Henry Parsons and what’s the project?”    

The Irvins are the couple behind an ingenious and thriving new pop-up dining concept recently hatched on South Arroyo Parkway.

If you haven’t been in a touring caravan following the Athens, Georgia-based jam band Widespread Panic, you might miss the reference here to their song “Henry Parsons Died.”

As Kevin explained, “It’s this really cool southern rock, Mississippi blues song.”

“(The pop-up concept) is something we’ve always had in the back of our head as a kind of vanity project, when we were doing a lot of wedding catering. We were going to open Henry Parsons Global Soul Food and so it was going to be kind of soul food and the street food from various places. What are those home dishes in those countries? What does that mean to the culture and to those people?”

The wedding catering has been the couple’s successful primary business for the last seven years under the banner, “Little Lily’s Kitchen.” Specializing in “bespoke” wedding menus tailored specifically to the tastes of their clients, their 2020 slate was reliably booking out when the pandemic arrived. As Kevin noted, “When COVID hit and we needed to do a pivot, we said, ‘Well, let’s just see if we can real quick throw this out there.’”

The move to their eclectic pop-up was an opportunity for them to focus on their own taste and inclinations.

“We make custom menus for our couples,” Kevin said. “It’s all about them. (Henry Parsons Project) is all about us. This is our hospitality. This is our home. This is where we come from in our soul.”

The recent local buzz on the place has focused mainly on the Cajun influences on the menu. The southern Louisiana bent manifests in the house scratch-made gumbo titled Yesterday’s NOLA Gumbo & Rice ($9/ $18) and the shrimp and grits ($18), however, there is evidence of much wider-ranging interests here. 

“So the project is really exploring a creative space,” Kevin said.

“We don’t have an identity. We have no obligation to history. We could do an entire New Orleans menu one week and do regional French the next (week) and do Mexican the next. We can do whatever we want. So that’s the project. (It’s) that exploration of these dishes and the exploration of that kind of culinary creative space.”

Kari added, “We get so much of our produce from the farmers market. Because of that, I think it just gives us a ton of freedom. We got them (red mustard frills) in because they looked really cool. It’s about figuring out what we can do with them. It’s all a big giant experiment.”

The couple hails from Minneapolis and met at the Minnesota Renaissance Fair as teenagers. Married 16 years, Kari was an itinerant high school history teacher and Kevin worked selling post-production film equipment in Hollywood until the digital age arrived and he found himself out of work.

“(At the time) I was a fairly high-level home cook and I said ‘I’m unemployed and I need to pay my mortgage, man,’” Kevin recalled.

“So, I offered my services (as a) personal chef and started a business. The short version is that led to some street food; the street food led to some catering and that led to some weddings. And pretty soon we had this wedding catering business coming at us as fast as we could deal with it.”

Little Lily’s Kitchen launched in 2013 and soon Kari retired from teaching to join Kevin in leading the burgeoning catering operation.

Henry Parsons Project, the Irvins’ pandemic pivot, popped up on Nov. 6, in the languishing space previously occupied by Margarita Jones. So, what’s the plan?

“The plan when we started was to be up until we can do weddings again,” he said.

“We’re having so much fun doing this. I don’t know what will happen when we have to make a decision on whether we shut it down or whether we keep it open and do catering on top of it. So, we’re calling it a pop-up for now because that’s how it started, and it has a nice ring to it. I just don’t know.”

Kari added, “Granted, we’re obviously a restaurant. Nobody can deny that. We just technically don’t use that term because in that world consistency is such a big part of it. You have a recipe, and the team makes the same recipe every single day. There’s a little bit of variance with us just because we’re not stuck to that traditional restaurant thing and because we’re a team of three, we’re always here.”

That team of three also includes Dahlia Gomez, a talented pastry chef trained at the Culinary Institute of America at Copia, in Napa.

The Irvins and Gomez were kind enough to offer a sample of the menu. The depth and range of the threesome’s collective palate became quickly evident. The aforementioned gumbo is a relatively simple rendition involving andouille sausage and chicken set in a convincingly well-bodied roux. It’s made the day before serving and allowed to rest overnight for the flavors to marry. Watch out for duck and seafood variations to come.

The shrimp and grits—with grits freshly milled at the local Grist & Toll—impart a texture of luxuriously creamed velvet bedding perfectly sautéed shrimp turned in creole spices. As Kevin pointed out, “I’m always the one making the grits. As I experiment and as I learn, those grits may change slightly.”

The autumn forager’s salad features grilled and spiced persimmons, roasted fennel, radicchio, frisee and roasted amaranth served with a pomegranate tahini dressing ($10/ $20).

It has a robust seasonal complexity that could easily serve as a satisfying meal in itself. The harissa-rubbed roast chicken thighs served on a warm farro grain salad tossed with swiss chard and sweet potatoes ($18) is an unusually sophisticated comfort dish that actually provides comfort. The street crepes—as Kevin noted “our riff on a jianbing,” or Chinese crepes—feature versions in either pork belly or king oyster mushroom ($12) and substitute shards of their homemade potato chips in place of fried wonton wrappers for the requisite added crunch. Authentically inauthentic and no less delicious, they offer a full two-fisted meal in a crepe.

At the moment, Gomez’s handiwork can be witnessed in her refreshing scratch-made strawberry cheesecake ice cream with “garam” crackers ($5) though we were also treated to an off-menu banana pudding that was so light and breezy it easily sheared away our impending gumbo bloat.

Stay tuned for more from Gomez. As Kevin noted, “Dahlia is really exploring regional Mexican food right now and trying to do the research and going deep on where her parents are from.” The menu here will morph but always from roots.

“Again, it’s that concept of home,” Kevin said. “Widespread Panic fans have a phrase called ‘home team.’ It’s about that giving. It’s about that hospitality. It’s about inviting other people into your home. I don’t know how you market that as a brand, but so much of that experience is what we strive to put out there.”