Cheese may be a staple of southern cooking, but it wasn’t until chef Kelsey Barnard Clark started training in the French style that she began to understand its culinary power beyond the comfort of its ooey, gooey goodness. “It opened my world, introducing me to the fact that there were a ton of different types of cheeses and that you could use it in different ways,” says the owner of KBC restaurant in Dothan, Alabama.

One of her favorite tricks, for example, is simmering a Parmesan rind in soups, stews and broths. “You’re not technically adding an ingredient, but the way it makes [the food] feel in and coats your mouth makes everything come alive,” she explains.

After returning to the south from New York City to open her catering company and restaurant, Barnard Clark used her experience with cheese to elevate southern favorites, capturing the perfect balance between what people expect and expanded, exciting and nuanced flavors. “Using a ripe cheese adds some brininess or a sourness that normally wouldn’t be there, while a very aged cheese adds umami; you can get this whole layer of flavor you couldn’t otherwise create or get from anything else,” says the Top Chef season 16 champ. “It’s simple, but there’s depth there, and to me, that’s what makes the best food — it’s just simple and well done.”

Barnard Clark shares three classic recipes, each with a simple but modern twist: A pimiento grilled cheese with bacon that gives a hint of smoke and Cajun kick, grits with a trio of cheeses that hold its own next to savory grillades, and a Caesar salad made special (and uniquely southern) with a secret ingredient in the dressing and a crispy-outside-melty-inside sidekick. Ready to dig in, y’all?