Dream Come True

Johnny Ray wasn’t a chef when he started Sultry Soul Food, but he dreamed of cooking.

Fried catfish with collard greens and candied yams, deep-fried wings with Famous Sticky Sauce, and a grilled salmon platter with fried okra and cabbage with kielbasa.

Photography by Fred + Elliott

You don’t even cook,” exclaimed Nina, Johnny Ray’s wife, when he announced his dream of opening a barbecue catering business a decade ago. Today, Johnny Ray’s Sultry Soul Food restaurant in Leesburg is the realization of that dream: his own restaurant, where he can devise modern versions of recipes he ate from his mother’s and grandmother’s kitchens growing up in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, near the Mississippi River.

Ray began by posting photocopied flyers for a barbecue catering business with typical fried chicken and shredded pork. At the time, he worked for Fairfax County Public Schools. He was not a trained chef, an amateur cook, or even a Food Network junkie; he simply awoke one morning determined to cook for a living. “This is something that changed my life,” says the amiable soul food proprietor. “I didn’t have any aspirations to own my own business before. Now I’ll dream about food I’ve never even seen or heard about and figure out how I’ll make it for customers.”

Johnny Ray

That barbecue catering business evolved into a Herndon soul food restaurant in 2013. In the sublet space, Ray first began to attract notice for his contemporary takes on favorite old family recipes for catfish, chicken wings, fried okra, and collard greens. The restaurant has now landed in a hot location in Leesburg’s Village Market shopping center. Johnny Ray’s Sultry Soul Food is one of the restaurant tenants in a shared commercial kitchen space called ChefScape, which fosters the launch of start-up restaurants.

The catfish is fried to perfection, with a delicious coating. The fried okra is crispy and is not buried beneath excessive cheese. The coleslaw, cabbage with kielbasa, collards, and candied yams are all first-rate, exceeding any expectations diners might have for their execution. The Colossal Pork Chop Platter merits special notice. Ray prepares the juicy chops in a two-day process he devised himself, which involves a six-hour brining on the first day and application of his own dry rub the second day. The results are spectacular.

Ray cooks all of the food himself, to order. “There are no warming trays here,” he points out, and the benefit of that fresh preparation is obvious. Save space for dessert, when you can choose from among traditional cake, peach cobbler, sweet potato pie, and banana pudding.

The shared ChefScape space is working so well for the tenants there that Ray says despite hoping to expand to a stand-alone location in the future, he fully expects to keep this location even if that happens. 

That seems likely, as Johnny Ray’s Sultry Soul Food is already a testament to the power of his ability to dream things that never were. SultrySoulFood.com

This article originally appeared in our Smoke + Salt 2019 issue.

June 11, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
July 9, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
August 13, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum