When Corinne Bradley-Powers heard about it earlier this year from congratulatory friends, the name they mentioned meant nothing.
“I know James Bradley“This is my grandfather,” says the 76-year-old man, “but I didn’t know James Beard. People said, “You don’t know? It’s the Oscar of food! So now I know.”
People in Camden must know Corinne Place diner The Bradley-Powers Restaurant opened in 1989. This year he was recognized by the James Beard Foundation (JBF) as one of America’s classics. Known for its prestigious national awards for chefs, restaurants and hospitality professionals, the JBF established this category in 1998 to celebrate “food that reflects the character of its community.”
Craig Laban, food critic Philadelphia Inquirer, has long been a fan of Corinne’s Place. Co-chair of the Beard Foundation’s Mid-Atlantic Committee, he calls her “the queen of soul food” and calls her fried chicken “unforgettable”. At Corinne’s Place, customers feast on classic soul dishes that Bradley-Powers has perfected, from fried chicken and fried fish to Cajun turkey wings, salmon croquettes and pork knuckles. On Sundays, they line up for her weekly rotating buffet. “Cities like Camden don’t often get James Beard awards,” Laban notes. “I have always considered Corinne a beacon of hope. Excellent restaurant, everything is done at the highest level.”
There is a reason for this. “I compete with myself,” says the chef/owner. “I always find ways to make my dishes even better.”
Making things better was the goal even before Bradley-Powers tied the chef’s apron. “I’m always trying to change the world,” she says, “that’s why I got a degree in sociology from Rutgers University and became a Camden County Juvenile Social Worker. I counseled children who were addicted to drugs and committed all sorts of crimes.
“I have influenced quite a few,” she adds. “Years later, when I opened a restaurant, I instructed the young people who came, gave them work. Many of them do not have the love that we are used to. So that was my ministry, that’s what I was born to do.
“Even though food is my passion, helping these kids is also my passion. I would say that 95 percent of the kids who started working for Corinne when they were about 13 or 14 are now doctors, lawyers, social workers. So that in itself is useful.”
You feel the backbone of what’s to come: “And people say nothing good comes out of Camden. I like to think differently. These children were not supposed to survive. But they did it.”
Earl Governor Phil Murphy is among Corinne’s admirers. Having dined there several times, he called her place “the best soul food in South Jersey”. He called her to congratulate her after she received the Beard Award.
One summer in hot July, the governor entered. She served him her baked chicken and pasta. “He was so nice and grateful,” she says. Bonus Points? As a true connoisseur of soul food, he asked for hot sauce.
Another visitor once had a handsome and very familiar face, although he had never before been seen in the city. Bradley-Powers ended up in Florida; her mother, Fanny Mae Anderson, ran the show.
The mother called her daughter. “We think Danny Glover is here,” she whispered into the phone.
“You must be joking,” said Bradley-Powers.
It wasn’t a joke. The actor was filming in Philadelphia and was told that Philadelphia’s best soul food is across the river. He returned for a second and third time, and on both occasions Bradley-Powers was present. By then, the staff knew he needed to bring in his favorite dishes: baked chicken and Cajun turkey wings.
The recipes that Corinne’s Place feeds on go back to the days she spent in her home kitchen watching and then helping her mom. The food has built a community and also brought the women of the family together. Bradley-Powers’ father died when she was about one and a half years old, and her mother was pregnant with her younger sister. Kitchen activity peaked on Saturday and Sunday when they prepared meals for friends, family and parishioners at their Pentecostal church in Camden.
“She always had three types of meat: pork, poultry and beef,” recalls the chef. “There was cabbage, collard greens, green beans. Always fresh, never frozen. Fragrances! Oh my God, it was like heaven.”
You can find these flavors at Corinne’s Place. The Beard award brought in new clients, as you can imagine. “At first we were surrounded by a crowd,” she says. All guests are equally warmly welcomed by the staff (including niece, nephew, and sometimes granddaughter) and the chef’s husband, Jerry Powers, whose carpentry skills helped build the place.
“We had a few people from New York,” says Bradley-Powers. “But most of the people who come are from other cities. Camden didn’t keep me in business. People from Delaware and Philadelphia are coming in like it’s just around the corner. Since I started this in 1989, I have never paid for advertising. I am truly blessed. It was all just from Tell a Friend.