Chef Jim Smith sums up the driving force behind the food found on the menu at his Mobile restaurant, The Hummingbird Way, succinctly: “Start with best, highest quality local and regional ingredients, and let the seasons speak,” he says. With its bayside locale and the glittering Gulf of Mexico nearby, seafood is often a bright star at the eatery. In fact, proximity to fresh fish, shrimp and oysters is one reason the former executive chef of the State of Alabama chose Mobile for his first foray into restaurant ownership.
Smith’s affection for the ocean’s bounty and those who raise, harvest and catch it is evident in his role as chair of the Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission. But he gives the same care and attention to every item that comes into and goes out of his kitchen, ensuring that The Hummingbird Way’s dining room is always buzzing with happy diners. Smith shares how he made it through Covid, what he learned from his time on Bravo’s “Top Chef” and as chef to Alabama’s first family, plus why biscuits are a staple on his restaurant’s changing menu. – Jennifer Kornegay
How did you first get interested in food and cooking?
I was in college at Samford University in Birmingham and took a job at a restaurant while going to school. I was not in the kitchen, but I just fell in love with the restaurant world, all the food and wine and the culture of it. That changed my mind about my future, and I ended up going to culinary school at Johnson & Wales University.
What led you to open The Hummingbird Way?
After culinary school, I helped open Dyron’s Lowcountry restaurant in Birmingham, and it was there I met Gov. Robert Bentley and his wife; they were regulars right before he was elected. Mrs. Bentley was asking my advice on handling food for state functions and such, and in those conversations, she decided to create a state chef position. She encouraged me to apply, and I got the job. I was in that position for a little over eight years. I served Gov. Kay Ivey in that time too and competed on Bravo’s “Top Chef.” The job was rewarding, but I wanted more people to enjoy my food. I wanted to serve a wider audience, so that’s why I opened my restaurant.
What did both your “top chef” experiences (as state chef and on the show) teach you?
Both required a lot of thinking on my feet and executing at a high level. When you’re put in a situation that requires quick thinking, you have to get creative but also stay true to yourself as a chef. On the show, I learned a lot just being around and interacting with so many other great chefs. And my main takeaway from the governor’s mansion was a focus on Alabama ingredients. I made wonderful contacts and relationships with farmers, fishermen, people making various food products, and I’ve kept them. They’ve been invaluable.
What do you want guests to find at The Hummingbird Way?
Great food, of course. But we also want to ensure that guests are receiving the best experience possible from the moment they walk in the door. We want them to shed away the troubles of the day and be embraced by all the restaurant has to offer, so there’s an equal emphasis on service. I have a great staff to accomplish this; most have been with me from the start.
Looking back at opening your restaurant right before the pandemic, what stands out?
It was a scary time. When you put everything you have into something and then see something so giant and out of your control threatening it, it’s hard. But staying true to what we do and working hard, we made it through it and came out stronger.
What do you love most about Mobile?
Mobile’s people are a top reason that I chose the city and love it. But it’s also the environment surrounding Mobile: the five rivers delta, the beaches, Dauphin Island, the bay. You just can’t escape the connection to water, and I don’t want to. I love the access to seafood.
In addition to a lot of seafood, The Hummingbird Way has a biscuit service as a main feature of its menu. Why?
I’m fascinated by biscuits. They are simple to make, and yet to execute them really well is not simple at all. I strive to provide those familiar flavors to guests but in a way that is a bit more elevated. It’s a great feeling to make something like that and make it really special, something guests remember and want to come back for. Our biscuits are a hallmark now and will always be on the menu.