Why I Cook at the P.O.
John Hall learned to cook in some of the most celebrated restaurants in the South, Europe and New York City. He returned home, to 41st Street in Birmingham’s Avondale, to launch his own business — brick-oven hot Post Office Pies.
John Hall left his native Birmingham to learn about cooking in many exotic locales. He’s returned with a new appreciation for food simplicity.
John Hall’s restaurant resume is filled with fine-dining experience. He worked in his hometown with renowned Birmingham chef Frank Stitt. He traveled to Luxembourg to train under Lea Linster, the only woman ever to win the prestigious Bocuse d’Or international cooking competition. He spent nearly five years honing his skills at New York City’s famed Gramercy Tavern, of which the New York Times once asked, “Is there a restaurant in this city more beloved?”
So as he entered his 30s and decided it was time to open a place of his own, Hall returned to his home neighborhood of Avondale and — with more than a decade of training in the world of watercress soups and pork Bolognese — became part-owner of a little pizza joint named Post Office Pies.
On the surface, this might seem to be an odd decision. A gourmet-trained chef who is cooking something so simple? But as any good pizza-maker knows, it is what lies underneath the surface — or toppings — that truly makes the difference. And one thing Hall learned during all that fine-dining training is, simple ain’t always easy.
“Some of the most difficult things to cook for people are things that they are very familiar with,” Hall said recently, while sitting at a table on the small patio in front of Post Office Pies, which opened in March. “I can make you something you’ve never had before, and since you don’t have anything to compare it to, you’re more open to it. Making simple things that people know is always the most difficult.”
Hall certainly didn’t take the simplest route to this pizza parlor. In fact, he began at a place he says many people aren’t willing to go anymore, not in the age of celebrity chefs and Food Network stars. He started at the bottom, washing dishes for a catering company in Atlanta.
“I come from a long line of pretty good cooks. And living in Alabama, we’re surrounded by food. It’s just a way of life,” Hall says. “So after high school, I decided that cooking was what I wanted to do.
“My first job (in 1999) was with Chef Anthony’s catering. He started me out washing dishes, peeling carrots, cutting onions. I’m proud of that. It’s sort of lost labor nowadays. Kids want to be chefs right away. Back then, that’s how you got started. Now, if an 18-year old came in and said he wanted to be a chef and I told him to start by washing dishes, he’d look at me like I was crazy.”
Hall learned the basics of cooking at Chef Anthony’s, spent time at a few other Atlanta-area restaurants and saved money to enroll in the culinary school at Johnson & Wales University, in Charleston, S.C. While there, he worked at the Charleston Grill in the Charleston Place Hotel, an experience he says “really changed my life.”
“That’s the first time I saw Southern cuisine elevated,” Hall says. “I had never eaten at Highlands (Stitt’s flagship restaurant in Birmingham and a trailblazer in the concept of fine Southern cooking). That really opened up my way of thinking.
“And the chef there, Michelle Weaver, is from Alabama. She put in a word for me with Frank, and I ended up working with him during the summer. That was an unbelievable experience. I did a lot of growing up in that kitchen.”
Hall received an associate degree in culinary arts from Johnson & Wales in 2003, then went to the school’s Providence, R.I., location, where he graduated in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in hospitality management. All the while, Hall worked at various restaurants, including a few months at Ocean and 26 in Birmingham during a brief return home.
Then came the trip to Luxembourg and the quintessential European fine-dining experience at Lea Linster’s restaurant. “Working there was intense,” Hall says. “It’s everything you’d think a European-style, Michelin-rated kitchen would be. There were only three cooks. We went out early in the morning and shopped for our produce, our meat, everything. We did it all.”
Luxembourg was followed by the move that so many young, aspiring chefs make at some point. Hall relocated to New York, where he began working at Gramercy Tavern. After so much bouncing around, Hall settled in at Gramercy and spent the next 4½ years soaking up the delectable New York dining scene.
“They have put out so many great chefs (at Gramercy). It’s more of an institution than a restaurant,” Hall says. “I knew as soon as I got there that it was a place where I could learn and grow. I worked every position up to saucier. That restaurant probably had the most influence on my professional career. It will always be like home to me.”
Still, as much as Hall enjoyed Gramercy, he couldn’t live by foie gras alone. Hall began feeling the urge to cook something more casual, more approachable. And in New York, the easiest thing to approach is a pizza place, because there seems to be at least one on every block. It may not be much more than an oven and a counter — or just a window in the wall — but it’s there, a place you can grab a slice.
“My girlfriend at the time had this idea to do a late-night pizza delivery business, because it was hard to get really good pizza late at night,” Hall says. “I had no experience making pizzas. So I did a lot of research, a lot of pizza eating. I set up a business number, had cards and flyers made. Then I started cooking them out of my apartment and delivering them on my bike.”
The response was not positive, at least from his roommate, primarily because the oven ran full blast for hours on end, heating up their tiny apartment and jacking up the gas bill. But Hall says the pizza he produced was greeted favorably by the locals, who can be a bit particular about their pie.
Not long after this, Hall began to think about returning to Birmingham. He was making only one trip home each year to see his family, and some relatives were beginning to have health issues. Plus, Hall says, he longed to be both a business and home owner, “which in New York is extremely difficult.”
So Hall was receptive when approached last year by longtime friend Brandon Cain about becoming part owner of a new eatery in his old Avondale community, which has undergone a commercial resurgence in recent years. Hall looked around at the nearby bars and restaurants, and quickly realized that the area needed its own neighborhood pizza place.
The result is Post Office Pies, named because the long-vacant venue was built as a post office. The restaurant has been an immediate hit, with weekend waits for a pizza stretching past an hour. It fits in comfortably with the new energetic vibe of Avondale’s 41st Street, an area that includes the popular Avondale Brewing Co. and Saw’s BBQ.
The pizza itself is New York-style thin crust, mixed with some Neapolitan style. It is a classic, no-frills pie. “There are no smoke-and-mirrors. It’s very basic,” Hall says. “I don’t consider it a gourmet, chef-y pizza by any means. That’s not what we’re going for. We just want to be a simple pizzeria, and we want our pizzas to reflect that.”
Because these days, to Hall, the simple pizzas at Post Office Pies represent the finest of dining.
Cary Estes is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Birmingham.