Now We’re Cooking: A Q&A with Chinese Southern Belle founder Natalie Keng, plus her playlist

Natalie Keng

Award-winning chef, entrepreneur, writer, and advocate are just some of the hats Natalie Keng wears. Keng’s Chinese Southern Belle (chinesesouthernbelle.com) is a multi-faceted business that uses food to build healthy, sustainable communities, support diversity, and strong local economies. Along with her beloved mom, Margaret, the Atlanta native offers cooking classes, market tours, custom events, and has a line of popular sauces. 

Q. Last year was difficult for everyone in the food business. How was it for you?
A. Like many small businesses, COVID-19 turned our world upside down. Not one channel was left unaffected. All of our food tours, cooking classes, demos, tastings and sales events were cancelled, including our beloved Annual Chinese Lunar New Year Cultural Dinner. Stores and restaurants were all but closed, and in-person shopping came to a halt. Shipping problems, damages, delays increased exponentially. I started hearing anti-Chinese taunts and threats that I hadn’t heard since I was a little girl growing up here – “Go back to where you came from, chink, take your virus home! –  and never thought I would again. But here we are. Instinctively, I pulled out all my American flag and Georgia Grown t-shirts and hats to wear publicly. On top of all that, my dad passed away. Good news? We won the prestigious international Sofi Award and Flavor of Georgia for Best Cooking Sauces.

Q.How did Chinese Southern Belle adapt?
A. I adapted CSB for survival by streamlining expenses and debt, and in the process of growing e-commerce. It takes time to scale up (or gain online access) to compete with behemoth Amazon, Instacart, etc. on pricing and fees. I will continue to focus on partnering and promoting local, woman-owned and minority-owned –  fellow small businesses, farms, farmers markets and independent retailers. Personally, I dove into community service. I get much of my emotional and physical synergy from the ground up and other people. I served on the Governor’s COVID-19 Task Force, the National Diversity Inclusion Task Force for Les Dames d’Escoffier, got certified as a Kaiser Permanente Health Educator, became class captain with Leadership Atlanta, and continue as a board member of ACLU of Georgia.

Q. What comfort food did you turn to while in lockdown mode? Did you find a new favorite place to get delivery/takeout food?
A.  Home-cooking was Southern fusion food, of course, like Mom’s Chinese Spaghetti, 1-Minute stir fries (with our bottled cooking sauces), noodle soups with fresh vegetables from the farmers markets and sliced pig ear from Wyatt’s BBQ. My bottled family-recipe cooking sauces have made me a lazy cook! I ate outdoors or got takeout at local restaurants, re-discovering neighborhood jewels like Steinbeck’s, Anna’s BBQ, Lake & Oak BBQ, new Vietnamese spot Vietvana in Avondale Estates, Las Brasas, Royal Sweets samosas, Honest Indian dhosas and chaats, Canton House on Buford Highway.

Q, Why is it more important than ever for Intowners to buy local at this time?
A. It’s how we will survive and thrive. Female and minority entrepreneurs and immigrant workers are keeping us afloat. While we get starry-eyed to grow nationally and it’s often more convenient or better pricing as consumers, the real engine of prosperity and wellness in the future is in local economies. “Local buying preference” legislation would be helpful since there are insurmountable contract barriers that keep women-minority-owned and small businesses out of contention. Getting involved politically at the local and state level, including commissions and boards that set policy is essential. Serving in public office drove home the point of who gets what, resources, access. Sound familiar with the COVID vaccine or access to fresh food? It’s all connected, y’all.