One night as lightning flashed and thunder roared outside the Crenshaws’ Pensacola home, Christine Crenshaw quickly turned off all the lights and unplugged the electronics.
It was the 1960s and they were the only ones in the neighborhood to have a phone and a black and white television. And little Priscilla Crenshaw liked it when the other neighborhood kids came over to watch cartoons and eat some of the food her father, Fred Crenshaw, brought home from his job as a chef.
She knew her mother was afraid of the lightning and thunder and watched as the house went dark in her mother’s wake.
Her father remained unmoved.
“Dear,” Fred Crenshaw’s gentle voice halted his wife’s skittish movements. He pointed to the light beside his chair. “You can turn off all the lights, but don’t touch this one because I’m going to read.”
Though he was always busy, Fred Crenshaw always found time to read and work on his culinary skills.
“He was at home when he entered the kitchen,” said Crenshaw’s son, Chris. “He studied books at night to find out the best way to do it. If something wasn’t right, it would worry him to death until he got it right.
“He experimented in the kitchen until he got it right. It was like his lab.”
And his children were his guinea pigs.
But they never complained, and always enjoyed their father’s home cooking, which is now shared with the hundreds of diners who patronize the at 1120 Ralph David Abernathy Blvd.
In an era plagued with racial strife and a recession, Fred Crenshaw of Alabama had set off to find a job and create a home for his new bride in the 1930s.
But Crenshaw did more than just find a job and a home – the 19-year-old began a love affair that would span more than six decades and influence the lives of his family as well as others.
In less than a year, Crenshaw went from being a busboy to becoming a chef, carving out a life and later a legacy in southern-style cuisine.
“He worked under other chefs,” said son Chris Crenshaw who now runs Q-Time with his brother Michael. “They saw that he was smart and interested. They made him a helper and eventually he became a chef.”
A gentle and giving man, Crenshaw came along at a time when slavery and poverty had influenced the evolution of southern food.
African slaves were the primary creators of southern cooking. They cooked and served generations; transforming staples of pioneer culture into refined dishes and spicy feasts that now epitomizes southern-style cuisines.
And with poverty from the Civil War and the Great Depression leaving many southerners hungry, their survival came to depend on the creative talents of gardeners, hunters, fishers, and of course cooks.
For a while, Fred Crenshaw happily cooked for others until his late 30s when he opened his own restaurant, the first of four throughout his life time.
With the help of his son, Chris and another partner, he opened the last one almost 18 years ago in Atlanta’s historic West End.
With more than 200 recipes that include Crenshaw’s own mixture of herbs and spices, Q-Time Restaurant continues to thrive in the tradition of mama’s home-style cooking.
But, in this case, it’s “dad’s” home-style cooking.
And it’s a style that is now carried on by his son Walter Crenshaw, Q-Time’s chef for the past 17 years; and the only one of Crenshaw’s 11 children to follow in his footsteps.
“My father taught my brother everything,” said Priscilla Phillips who also works at the restaurant. “He was my father understudy.”
It would be the two of them, father and son working side-by-side early in the morning while the rest of the family slept.
“He taught everyone in the family. I’m the only one who hung in with him,” Walter Crenshaw, 51, said. “I liked what I was doing, getting up early in the morning, working with him. He was passing it down to me.”
About 3 a.m., the lessons would begin as Crenshaw taught his 14-year-old son to cook breakfast that began with grits, eggs and bacon. Each day, he would add another item until he covered the lunch and dinner recipes.
“I felt proud working with him. He’s the best chef I’ve ever seen,” said Crenshaw who went on to work as a chef in hotels such as the Fairmont and the Marriott. “He just brought me on slowly. He showed me a few things on the grill. Then I caught on.
“It was good. I’m still doing it the same way. Ain’t nothing changed.”
But while none of the others became chefs, some took turns waiting tables and washing dishes in their father’s restaurants during the summer.
“A trained cook takes a while, but a pot washer trains when he hits the suds,” said Chris Crenshaw who used the money he earned for school, to buy hotdogs and take girls to the Sugar Bowl.
And as the older men did with him, Crenshaw also reached out to younger men in the community.
“He took young folks in and taught them skills they could use. He taught them cooking. Skills young folks could use to take care of their family like he did,” Crenshaw said.
In 1974, Fred Crenshaw and his wife moved to Atlanta to be closer to family. He opened up a seafood restaurant on Campbellton Road, which he closed after 11 years.
Then Crenshaw, his son and another man thought of opening up a soul food restaurant. Still they had to find a location.
At that time, the location on Ralph David Abernathy was a Kudzu patch. But they cleaned the lot and built the shopping plaza where the restaurant now stands.
They chose the name Q-Time from more than 100 names submitted by family and friends.
Pictures of the late Fred Crenshaw and his wife are propped prominently on the walls framing the door to the restaurant where faithful customers have dined for years.
On Fridays, promptly at 8 a.m., a Bible Study group of eight men sit at their regular table in the center of the room, praying and dining on grits, eggs and pancakes.
Construction workers stream in and out one Thursday morning, some stopping to eat in the buffet-style diner while others take their breakfast to go.
The diners range in age, mostly from their early 20s to late 60s and older.
But even children like 10-year-old Coreneshia Smith finds something to like in the assortment of dishes displayed behind the glass case of the 4,000-square-foot restaurant.
As she bit down on cheese and grits, eggs and beef sausage, Smith declared the sausage was her favorite.
Her aunt, Annette King found out about the restaurant last week through a friend.
The first time she went to the restaurant, King ordered two vegetable plates with turkey, dressing and gravy for her and her two teen daughters.
They especially loved the seasoned cabbage, which King, who lives in Tucker, made sure she ordered when she returned to the restaurant twice – once more for dinner and then for breakfast.
“I’m from the country so I love southern food,” King, 49, said.