The Top 10 Chefs You Need To Know In Birmingham, Alabama
New York may be a culinary mecca, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of food talent. As such, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to highlight celebrity, notable, or otherwise up-and-coming chefs you should know about across the country.
Birmingham just so happens to be the hometown of our very favorite fictional chef
Janette Desautel on HBO’s Treme (although, if you asked, we’re sure she’d identify as a New Orleans native), so we thought we’d see which other culinary stars might be lurking in Alabama’s largest city. Have you heard of this Hot and Hot Fish Club guy?
We know all about Chris Hastings of Hot and Hot Fish Club. His always-the-bridesmaid-never-the-bride streak finally broke this year, when, after being nominated five of the last six years for Best Chef: South at the James Beard Awards, he won the medal for 2012. He's also the author of The Hot and Hot Fish Club Cookbook, A Celebration of Food, Family and Traditions, a member of the Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation’s Culinary Council, and he once beat out Bobby Flay in Kitchen Stadium during Iron Chef's Battle Sausage.
But let's back up a generation. Having arrived in Alabama via the ranks in
Alice Waters' kitchen at Chez Panisse, Frank Stitt opened up Highlands Bar and Grill in 1982. Several Outstanding Restaurant JBA nods later, plus another handful of restaurants ( Bottega, Chez Fonfon, and Bottega Cafe), Stitt was inducted into the James Beard Foundation's "Who's Who of Food and Beverage" in 2011. He also won Best Chef: Southeast in 2001 (yeah, James Beard rezones a lot), and was a 2008 Outstanding Chef nominee. Oh, and there's also that Southern Food Alliance Lifetime Achievement Award for being one of the first proponents of the local food movement in the South. No biggie. (Read: total biggie. His work has undeniably shaped chefs like Hastings.)
Best Chef: South semi-finalist at the 2011 James Beard Awards, Chris Dupont is originally from New Orleans, where he was groomed by chefs like Emeril Lagasse at Commander's Palace, Susan Spicer at Maison du Ville, and Daniel Bonnet at Tour d'Eiffel. Cafe Dupont first opened outside of Birmingham in the '90s, but later moved downtown as the locavore movement began to pick up speed. It was named one of the city's best restaurants in 2009 by Food & Wine Magazine.
George Reis opened Ocean in 2002, which won the AAA Four Diamond Award every year from 2007-2011, as well as the Wine Spectator Award from 2004-2011. He later opened 26, which was designated "Birmingham's Best New Restaurant" by the Birmingham News, and later took two Wine Spectator Awards itself, in 2009 and 2010. Reis also serves on the Board of Directors for Birmingham Originals, an organization for chefs and other food artisans to spread the locavore movement across the city.
Food & Wine Magazine's 2011 Best New Chef Award winner James Lewis is the chef/owner of Bettola in Birmingham. Besides the honor of having his restaurant named one of Chris Hastings' favorite neighborhood spots, Lewis is also one of the few American members of Associazione Pizzaiuoli Napoletani, which, yes, is an entire association dedicated to certifying pizzas as authentically Neapolitan.
The Fatback Collective. Owner of Jim 'N Nick's barbecue chain, all 27 locations of which are sustainably operated. Need we say more? Fine, we will. As if that's not impressive enough, he also got the Alabama State Government to take part in an effort to breed heritage hogs.
John Besh's Luke and Emeril Lagasse's Commander's Palace, and one-time sous chef of The Veranda on Highland, Jeffrey Hansell would later return to the restaurant as its executive chef. Located across the street from Chris Hastings' restaurant and down the Avenue from Frank Stitt's, Hansell is, at the very least, geographically poised to succeed.
Chris Newsome is the chef-owner of
Ollie Irene, a James Beard Award semi-finalist for Best New Restaurant 2011. He's another alum of both Frank Stitt and Chris Hastings' kitchens, and is among a group of chefs Hastings says are "doing really great regional farm to table cuisine in their own way."
Also in that group of chefs is
Chris Harrigan, who inherited A Stone's Throw (originally The Standard Bistro) from his former boss Chris Hastings. He also worked in Frank Stitt's kitchen, started an organic farm with his wife, and even served a stint at Jim 'N' Nick's BBQ! Connections!
Photo: A Stone's Throw
Iron Chef: America episode Chris Hastings won against Bobby Flay? Yeah, this guy was his sous chef. A one-time sous chef of Hot and Hot Fish Club, Rob McDaniel is now the executive chef of SpringHouse, a farm-to-table restaurant in Birmingham that Hastings calls "the most beautiful restaurant in Alabama with the next superstar of the Alabama food scene."
Photo: Daniel Taylor