Eat fresh and local: New generation of chefs spread the good news
By Jennifer Kornegay
If you asked someone outside our state to name the first few things that come to mind when someone says “Alabama,” you’d probably get answers like football, farms, maybe even Lynard Skynard or that band from Fort Payne bearing our name. It’s doubtful anyone would mention our culinary scene. It may not pop up in your mind either. But it certainly should. And if a couple of veteran chefs and a crop of new ones have their way, it soon will.
In the beginning, there was Birmingham
Alabama has always been home to good food. Mamas and grandmas keep comfort-food traditions alive in their kitchens. Meat ‘n three joints, BBQ shacks and fish camps have long been the bastions of a rich food culture. There are even a few fine-dining establishments that have been wowing diners for decades with their fancy, flavorful fare.
But the real restaurant renaissance in Alabama can be traced back to Birmingham and right into pioneering Chef Frank Stitt’s kitchen at Highlands Bar & Grill, which he opened in 1982. Stitt now owns two other lauded restaurants in the Magic City and in 2011 was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s “Who’s Who of Food and Beverage,” a major honor.
One of Stitt’s protégés, Chef Chris Hastings, blazed several miles further down the trail as one of the first in Alabama to base a restaurant on the “farm-to-table” philosophy when he opened Hot and Hot Fish Club in 1995. In addition to being a Beard nominee for “Best Chef in the South” twice, he competed in the Food Network’s “Iron Chef” show, cooking against and handily beating one of the country’s leading chefs, Chef Bobby Flay.
Hastings and Stitt will forever be recognized as two of Alabama’s best, and they are still going strong, but a new class of chefs following in their footsteps is spreading the “eat fresh and local” good news as well as plenty of good food far beyond Birmingham. We picked a few of our favorites from around the state and asked them what inspires their cooking and influences their cuisines. While their individual styles are reflected in their unique menus, they all share one thing: An understanding that the best dishes begin with the best ingredients — and that the best ingredients come from home.
Chef Josh Quick
Restaurant: Odette in Florence
Opened: November 2013
Eat This: Ginger lemongrass pork kebobs, red curry deviled farm eggs (You’ll never truly enjoy a regular deviled egg again) and chilaquiles made up of practically melted braised pork, topped with a perfectly fried egg all over crispy, just-made tortilla chips and finished with smoky roasted tomato and avocado salsa.
When you step off the main street running through downtown Florence and into Odette’s long, slim, sleek dining room (built into a 100-year-old building), Chef Josh Quick hopes you see a few things you recognize on his menu, but he wants you to embrace the twists he’s putting on these familiar flavors. “We’re putting some innovative spins on things,” he said. “There are things you’ll know, but they’re probably executed a little differently.
When people leave us, I hope we’ve pushed them past their boundaries a little bit, and have helped them break out of their own culinary mold.” And since the menu changes often, and Chef Josh is passionate about learning and creating new things, there are always new tastes to try.
Born in New York City, Quick moved to Montgomery when he was five. Adter high school he opened a coffee shop, his first attempt at the career in food he’d known he wanted since he was a kid. “I knew pretty young that I wanted to cook,” he said. “I remember going to visit my grandmother in New York at 14 and saying I wanted to be a chef. We went to the Culinary Institute of America to check it out and took a tour; I was then positive being a chef was for me.”
The coffee shop was short lived. “I realized fast that I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said. In an effort to find out, he enrolled in a three-year culinary apprenticeship program at Disney World. After successfully completing the program, he stayed at the Mouse House for two more years, working in every aspect of food and beverage there. Next, he worked as the sous chef at the Ross Bridge Resort in Birmingham, working up to become banquet chef. He moved to Florence to work as the banquet chef at Ross Bridge’s sister property, the Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa. He was promoted to executive chef, but when the Odette opportunity came his way, he jumped on it.
At Odette, Chef Josh’s belief that “scratch-made” and “fresh” are more than mere buzzwords is evident in every menu item. “We make everything from our bread to our ketchup in house, with a focus on local products,” he said, “and my food is very influenced by the region we live in, but since my culinary education was European-based, you’ll find classic techniques applied to local ingredients.”
Chef David Bancroft
Restaurant: ACRE in Auburn
Opened: August 2013
Eat This: Crispy fried goat cheese salad, BBQ brisket tacos and “Butt-rubbed” Gulf snapper with creamy grits, spicy Andouille and a drizzle of herb-crawfish butter (just the right mix of heat, richness and light, flaky fish).
Rustic timber and stone anchor the physical structure of ACRE, Chef David Bancroft’s restaurant in Auburn, and the plates coming out of his kitchen are as pretty as the food is delicious, but Chef David wants his guests’ time at ACRE to transcend the tangible. He wants every bite of every dish to convey sincere hospitality; he wants you to feel the love.
It’s a sweet sentiment from the avid outdoorsman who’s more often than not in jeans, cowboy boots and sporting a hefty belt buckle that hints at his Texas roots.
Born in Mobile, he grew up in San Antonio where he learned the art of brisket and barbecue. “I was always cooking, smoking, grilling,” he said. “I love to cook because I love to eat. There’s no greater satisfaction than enjoying something good you made yourself.” He made his way back to Bama via Auburn University, following his two older brothers and his parents.
In college, David’s culinary skills, particularly his way with smoke and flame, were quickly noticed, and he was made kitchen manger for his fraternity. “I told my dad then that I wanted to go to culinary school,” he said. But his dad said, “Wait.” “He told me to work in a restaurant first, so I got a job at Amsterdam Café.”
After a year, he was offered the chef position, and he led the kitchen at the popular restaurant for six years, putting an emphasis on local produce and products while also running the management and financial side of things. Amsterdam Café’s success gave Chef David the confidence he needed to open his own place, and he did.
ACRE is Chef David’s food philosophy in action. He built the restaurant on an acre of land in town, and scattered between parking spaces and sidewalks is ACRE’s mini-farm. Peach trees line a median; an herb garden is right near the front door. Other veggies and fruits (plums, figs, blueberries, heirloom tomatoes, beans, carrots, zucchini) are growing in unexpected places, and they all find their way into Chef David’s creations, food that he deems “driven by the land and what it gives us.”
But again, Chef David looks beyond the act of eating. He sees bridges being built. “I enjoy the communal aspect of folks eating and enjoying food together; it is an immediate invitation for storytelling and passing down traditions. I love being able to prepare food and attach to someone else’s story through my food or attach my story to theirs, to find that common bond,” he said.
Chef Rob McDaniel
Restaurant: SpringHouse in Alexander City
Eat This: the cheese plate with local honey and berries (pure satisfaction), the Southern veggie plate (with whatever’s ripe right now) and hickory-grilled bone in pork loin with summer squash, lemon and Parmesan.
Real food done right is what you’ll find at SpringHouse in Alexander City where Chef Rob McDaniel proves that simple can be stunning. “We use quality ingredients, and we use things in season. When you do that, you don’t need to dress them up or drown them in sauces. We don’t alter food very much because I want you to taste it for what it is,” he said.
The North Alabama native got his degree in hotel and restaurant management from Auburn before heading to the New England Culinary Institute. He honed his craft at Creola’s in Grayton Beach, Fla., for a few years before heading to work under Chef Chris Hastings at Hot & Hot Fish Club in Birmingham. He was working for Jim and Nick’s while also serving as a personal chef when he was offered the SpringHouse job. “I’m so glad I took it,” he said. “I love the company I work for, and I love the restaurant. Being a chef is hard work—really hard work. When everyone else you know is out playing on weekends, you’re slaving in a hot kitchen, but the friends you make through this process, you get really close to them, so it’s a neat family you create.”
His sacrifices are his diners’ gains, who choose from an ever-changing menu that is, as Chef Rob explains it, “Southern, but yet influenced by many other cultures and cuisines too.” Tastes and techniques gleaned from his mother’s kitchen are just as likely to show up in a dish as his classical French training.
But it all goes back to the basics. “We source local as much as possible, but it’s more about making things ourselves. Ninety percent of everything we do is made from scratch, right here in our kitchen,” he said. “And we break down whole animals ourselves. It’s tough, but we can get so much more out of it and learn so much about it. Then we really know how to treat it so we pull out its best flavor.”
Chef Wesley True
Restaurant: TRUE in Montgomery
Eat This: The Cox Farm burger with Alabama beef, house-made boursin, hand-cut fries and house-made pickle (a better burger in every way) and the house-made gnocchi with local tomatoes, celery leaves, Parmesan and white wine butter.
Some minds are never static, never satisfied with the status quo. They achieve, and then they keep climbing until they reach that “aha!” moment again. Chef Wesley True knows this; he lives it, consistently pushing past culinary boundaries and encouraging an “open palate” attitude, much to the delight of capital city diners who visit his Montgomery restaurant TRUE in the hip and historic Old Cloverdale neighborhood.
The Mobile native opened TRUE in Montgomery in 2012, after running a successful version of the restaurant in his hometown. The James Beard Award nominee and CIA grad has fashioned a menu featuring dishes that shine the spotlight on the best locally sourced, seasonal ingredients he can find. Each item reflects the classical French training he received at school and his tutelage in the kitchens of renowned NYC eating establishments like Bouley and Aquavit, as well as his commitment to farm-fresh food, but not necessarily “Southern” food.
“I think ‘Southern food,’ can be a misleading and limiting way to describe something,” he said. “I’m inspired by multiple influences from all over.” The menu section titled Chef True’s Signature Small Plates illustrates this best with selections that read like poetry and look like paintings. Case in point: the Taste of Spring with seafood mousse, poached Gulf shrimp, red pepper ice cream, spring pea dash and squid ink. Follow that masterpiece with a more rustic, definitely regional, dish: crispy fried chicken skins in hot sauce with buttermilk-herb dressing for dipping. Placing these dishes mere inches apart on the menu is proof that Chef Wesley is well on his way to re-interpreting what Southern food encompasses.
Chef Leonardo Maurelli, III
Restaurant: Central in Montgomery
Opened: 2012. Chef Leo joined Central in February 2013.
Eat This: Braised duck wontons with crunchy vinegar slaw, the tangy pickled Gulf shrimp and wood-fired meatloaf (way better than your mama’s!).
He’s a big guy with a big smile and an even bigger appetite for bonding with other food lovers and blowing their taste buds right off their tongues with his dishes that are a happy marriage of just-harvested produce, fresh meats and the finest anything else he can get his hands on prepared under the influence of his Panamanian heritage, the lessons from an Italian grandma and no small amount of energy. He’s Chef Leonardo Maurelli, but you can call him Chef Leo, and when you’re at Central in downtown Montgomery’s Alley entertainment district, you’re in his house. And everyone’s welcome at Chef Leo’s house.
He comes by his enthusiasm for eating naturally. “I just grew up in the kitchen and in an environment where food was about more than filling your stomach. On both sides of my very social family, food was a big deal. It’s why I fit into the South so well,” he said. Born in the Republic of Panama, he moved with his family to Daphne, Ala., in 1991, and he graduated high school early, at age 16. His mom didn’t want him off at college that young, so he took a year off and then did two years at a technical school in Mobile.
He choose Auburn University with the idea he’d study architecture, but quickly changed his mind and pursued his degree in hospitality and restaurant management instead. He started working as a fry cook at Willie’s Wings and while still working there and taking classes, began work in the kitchen at Hamilton’s restaurant. After graduation, he worked at the Hotel at Auburn University & Dixon Conference Center. “There was so much talent there, and I got to cook under that and get the basics: making stocks, sauces, knife skills.” After helping open Montgomery’s Railyard Brewery, he became Central’s executive chef. In the lofty space that was once a grocery warehouse, he and his staff are turning out dishes focused on seasonal ingredients prepared with precision. “We use things that are at their peak, and I want the food to speak for itself, so I don’t fuss around with it too much,” he said.
He’s earned some high praise: Alabama Restaurant Association’s Chef of the Year 2011 and being named one of the Best Chefs America-South by a peer review publication highlighting the best of the best in the culinary profession. But it’s not gone to his head. In fact, he’s eager to share recipes and offer kitchen tips with anyone and everyone. On Friday evenings in the spring and summer, he partners with Montgomery’s Downtown Farm to put on Desde el Jardin (from the garden) dinners. On Friday afternoons, he gets a basket full of whatever is ripe and ready on the farm, creates a menu based on the basket and posts it, as well as photos and videos of the dishes in process, on his social media sites. He also includes the playlist he and his kitchen staff will be jamming to while whipping up the evening’s offerings.
Chef Bill Briand
Restaurant: Fisher’s at Orange Beach Marina in Orange Beach
Opened: May 2013
Eat This: ham and green onion hushpuppies with jalapeno dipping sauce and blackened fish tacos (dockside) and oysters Earle (you really must!) and seared jumbo sea scallops with roasted cauliflower and ginger herb salad (upstairs).
“All Alabama” is the mantra of Chef Bill Briand. He’s striving to incorporate as much Alabama-grown produce and as many Alabama-made ingredients as possible into his menu, particularly the bounty of the warm Gulf waters only steps from his kitchen. “We are definitely using Alabama seafood to our advantage,” he said. “It would be crazy not to, but you’d be surprised how many places don’t.”
Born in Great Britain while his military dad was there, he and his family finally settled in New Orleans. He tried college, majoring in industrial drafting, and didn’t love it, so he went to work for a little Mexican eatery back home in NOLA. One knock on a door put him on the path to a culinary career. “I just knocked on the door at Emeril’s [famed Chef Emeril Lagasse’s flagship restaurant] and offered to work for free for one day if they’d give me a chance,” he said. “They did, and he worked there for 11 years, moving his way up the ranks in the kitchen.” His next job was with Chef Donald Link, another major name on the national culinary stage, and he was the executive chef of Link’s Cochon restaurant for three years before Fisher’s owner, Johnny Fisher, brought him to Alabama to head up his namesake restaurant.
Chef Bill’s approach is to treat food honestly. “You don’t need 85 things on a plate,” he said. “You just need a balance of flavors, and you want to truly taste every one of them.” He strikes this balance in Fisher’s two menus: one for the casual dockside dining, the other for the fine-dining upstairs area. Both are designed to be part of an overall experience. “From the atmosphere in both dining rooms to the service to the food, it is all about being relaxed,” he said. “You’re at the beach.”
But don’t get too comfortable. Chef Bill wants diners to branch out and try new things, and he makes sure the wait staff clearly understands every item on the menu so they can accurately describe it to Fisher’s guests.