On a rare warm winter afternoon, Marie Nygren busily chops an array of fresh bounty in her sun-soaked kitchen. The grande dame of Serenbe, an eco resort and residential community in Chattahoochee Hills, Ga., Nygren is no stranger to the kitchen. Proprietress of The Farmhouse at Serenbe and host of the community’s Southern Chef Series, the apron-clad chef is a familiar sight—but today’s meal is closer to her heart.
“Should I turn up the heat?” she asks, stirring a roux that’s simmering on the stove. “Yes, really get it going,” replies Father Austin Ford. The duo is preparing Ford’s hearty seafood gumbo recipe for an evening dinner with “my five most favorite people in the world,” says Nygren. Today’s intimate guest list is reserved for her husband, Steve, daughters Garnie, Kara and Quinn and longtime friend Ford.
Nygren first met Ford as a volunteer at his afternoon summer program at Emmaus House, a community center in South Atlanta that he founded in 1967. From its humble beginnings, Emmaus House eventually grew to be an essential support structure for the community, yet this endeavor hardly sums up Ford’s legacy. He worked to bring the nonprofit Women, Infants and Children (WIC) to Georgia and was a steadfast civil rights activist who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr.
When Nygren walked into Emmaus House in 1986, it was a meeting of kindred spirits. “There was an instant friendship,” she says. “Plus, I thought he was one of the best cooks I’d ever met,” says Nygren, recalling Ford’s sweetbreads for which her taste buds hold a particular soft spot. Almost 30 years later, the pair is still discussing food. While Nygren slices fresh okra on the chopping board, Ford recounts his recipe for scrambled eggs with vinegar, a dish the Serenbe chef has yet to successfully replicate. So when Ford asks her secret to making the perfect corn bread, Nygren giddily responds that she can finally teach him something.
The little victory is short-lived, though, as Ford promptly reminds her to check on the roux and quips that it hasn’t been tended to. Ford is always one to keep Nygren on her toes; the special dynamic between the longtime friends is a balance of great respect and witty banter. Nygren values Ford’s guidance so much, in fact, that in 2009, she turned to him for advice when the future of The Farmhouse at Serenbe was in question after its fourth chef in three years departed. Like many times before—and still a routine ritual—she and Ford sat on the porch of his Grant Park home with a glass of bourbon for him and wine for her. Within several hours, the pair finalized five recipes to reopen the eatery with Nygren at the kitchen’s helm. Today, she’s still top toque at the restaurant, and Ford’s shrimp and grits recipe remains a guest favorite.
Whether cooking for a restaurant dining room full of patrons or just a special few, Nygren’s appreciation for the process is palpable. “For me, cooking is a very sensual experience in that you rely on all five senses,” she explains. “You’re touching the ingredients, and then—whether it’s onions sizzling or a stew bubbling on the stove—you can taste, hear, smell and certainly look at it. Cooking is one of the few experiences where all five senses are essential.”
Ford’s take on cooking is somewhat less poetic. “I don’t love to cook. I love to eat, therefore I have to cook,” he says with a sly smile. But his knack for creating divine dishes is apparent as Nygren’s final stir of the seafood gumbo fills the kitchen with appetizing aromas. “His food is exquisitely delicious and this recipe for gumbo is the best I’ve ever tasted,” she proudly boasts of her friend. While Nygren sets the table with bowls of tonight’s feast in her charming backyard, she’s overcome with emotion as her “favorite five” take their seats. “Cooking is such a great gift of one’s spirit,” she says with sincerity. “It’s an act of nurturing others both physically and emotionally. But most importantly, for me, it’s an act of love every time I can bring people together over a shared meal.”