A Master Chefs Sampler
Our nationally known top chefs, as well as a homegrown abundance of fresh food, ensure Alabama’s continued excellence in the culinary scene.
The Year of Alabama Food may be coming to a close, but Alabama’s emergence as a significant food destination continues. Our nationally known top chefs, a few of whom are profiled here, as well as a homegrown abundance of fresh food, ensure Alabama’s continued excellence in the culinary scene. As you read, watch for the ways other top Alabama chefs helped these master the trade.
Last May, chef Chris Hastings, owner of Hot and Hot Fish Club with his wife, Idie, won the James Beard Foundation’s coveted award for best chef in the South. Although Hastings has been recognized with numerous other prestigious awards and often has been featured in national television programs and publications, he considers the James Beard award his greatest honor.
“It was great to win on Iron Chef, and that brought our restaurant a lot of attention this year, but winning the James Beard award has been a dream of mine for a long time,” he says.
Hastings calls himself an “accidental chef” because he might never have become one had it not been for a series of events growing up in Charlotte, N.C. After his mother died when he was a senior in high school, Hastings was thrown into an emotional tailspin. He clung to the familiarity of the busboy job he had at the Silver Cricket Restaurant and decided to work in the kitchen there rather than start college. When the restaurant’s chef, John Daly, saw his talent he suggested Hastings attend culinary school. “I hadn’t thought about it before, but it seemed as logical a choice as college,” Hastings says.
He attended the highly respected Johnson and Wales Culinary School in Providence, R.I. in the early 1980s, and after graduating, worked at the Ritz Carlton in Atlanta, where he saw European techniques applied to Southern cuisine. During a weekend trip to Birmingham, he visited Highlands Bar and Grill, meeting nationally known chef Frank Stitt, famous for his fresh, seasonal menu. Not too long after, Hastings began interviewing with Stitt and trying out in the kitchen for chef de cuisine. “On the last day of the interview, I planned to turn down the job, but for some mysterious reason ‘yes’ came out of my mouth,” Hastings says. “Like other inexplicable things in my life, it had a major impact on my future. Frank is an incredible chef.”
Hastings worked with Stitt several years before moving to food-famed San Francisco so Hastings’ wife could attend culinary school there. After working with Chef Bradley Ogden to open the Lark Creek Inn, Hastings returned to Birmingham to work with Stitt again before opening Hot and Hot Fish Club in 1995. The Southside restaurant is known for its innovative seasonal menus. “When you work with the freshest ingredients available on that day, it challenges your creativity and keeps the whole staff energized. The excitement in the kitchen spills over to the dining room,” Hastings says.
Chef Randall Baldwin, of Dyron’s Lowcountry Restaurant in Mountain Brook, got a jump on his peers by helping his mother, Nancy, in the kitchen while growing up in Mobile County. He remembers being six or seven years old and her letting him use a tea glass to cut out biscuits from the dough she’d mixed and rolled out on a baking sheet. “Then I’d tell everyone I made the biscuits,” Baldwin says.
As the years passed, he continued to cook with her and his grandmother because it gave him enjoyment. As a young adult, following his service in the U.S. Marine Corps, Baldwin wasn’t sure what career to pursue. He took a job as a prep cook in the kitchen of the former Adam’s Mark in downtown Mobile. While working there, he decided to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y and become a chef. “I drove up there with $300 in my pocket only to learn that the school wasn’t open that day, so I slept in my car,” Baldwin says.
On a school vacation to visit his sister in Birmingham, Baldwin’s mother suggested the family dine at Highlands Bar and Grill. Baldwin met Frank Stitt, who was nice enough to give Baldwin a tour of the kitchen. “I was blown away by all the fresh food and the wood fire grill. I knew I wanted to work for the guy,” Baldwin says.
While still attending culinary school, Baldwin did his externship at Stitt’s Bottega restaurant. Baldwin was then hired to work at Bottega after he graduated in 2003. Later he became Stitt’s chef de cuisine at Chez Fonfon and went on to become the kitchen manager at Highlands Bar and Grill. Baldwin calls his experience working with Frank Stitt “priceless” in terms of helping Baldwin become the respected chef he is today. “He was a generous mentor and shaped my view of what it means to be a true professional,” Baldwin says. “Working in a kitchen can be stressful, but that’s no excuse for yelling.”
Stitt and his wife, Pardis, became like family during the six years Baldwin worked with them, he says, and he remains close to them. “Pardis was like a mother after my mother died,” Baldwin says. “My mother had cancer for the last 10 years of her life. One of the last things she told me was she wanted me to stay in culinary school and graduate.”
Three years ago, Baldwin joined forces with Dyron and Sonya Powell to create the highly rated Dyron’s Low Country. Now an executive chef, Baldwin uses Alabama’s freshest ingredients to create dishes that reflect the Lowcountry tastes of South Carolina and Georgia, as well as that of South Alabama.
Lucy Buffett in no way, shape or form fits the conventional description of a top chef. She didn’t attend culinary school and she never trained with a celebrity chef. Yet, even so, she has become nationally known for her cooking, cookbook and fresh Gulf Coast seafood restaurant, LuLu’s at Homeport Marina in Gulf Shores. “If you had told me I’d one day own a restaurant serving more than 4,000 people a day, I would never have believed it,” she says.
Buffett, originally from south Alabama, married young and began pulling from “Recipe Jubilee!,” the Mobile Junior League cookbook, to learn how to prepare meals. She thoroughly enjoyed cooking and soon was coming up with her own recipes for dinner parties. It was the beginning of a lifelong passion for feeding her friends and family, including her brother, singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett. “Cooking is a labor of love,” Lucy Buffett says.
Buffett’s life took many an interesting turn after she left Alabama, including working in Hollywood as an administrative assistant and caterer and a stint cooking on Harrison Ford’s yacht. “At one time, I was planning to attend culinary school in New York City, but it was really cold up there. I got a call to fly down to Antigua for a job, so I immediately left to take that,” Buffett says, laughing.
Eventually Buffett returned home to be near her parents, who lived in the Mobile Bay area. She developed a following for her catering and gumbo deliveries. When the Weeks Bay Foundation was given a small parcel with a boat launch and old restaurant building, a representative called Buffet and suggested she open a restaurant there. Soon LuLu’s Sunset Grill was born. “We didn’t have air conditioning, and the roof leaked, but it was a great place to get a cold beer and a great burger and watch the sunset,” Buffett says.
After five years and the end of Buffett’s lease, the State of Alabama decided to convert the Weeks Bay property to a different use. While being forced to move in 2003 was painful, as well as a financial setback, it did give rise to Buffett’s current restaurant, which now serves about 10 times as many customers on a daily basis.
Buffett says she soon will be opening a second restaurant nearby that will focus on fresh coastal cuisine from the Mexican Gulf Coast to South Florida. She also has a second cookbook in the works. “I’ve had a bunch of different jobs in my life, but every one of them helped prepare me for where I am today,” Buffett says.
Award-winning chef Wesley True and his wife, Bobbi, a certified sommelier, recently opened True, a fine dining restaurant with a seasonal menu in Montgomery. His more casual True Midtown Kitchen, in Mobile, is run by his brother, Richard. True test marketed various dishes for the new Montgomery restaurant while still operating under the location’s former restaurant banner, Roux. “It was an invaluable situation because I was able to get a better understanding of local tastes and preferences before I opened my restaurant,” he says. “You usually don’t get that opportunity.”
True enjoys putting a fresh twist on favorite Southern recipes and, for his opening menu, has come up with his own special versions of sweet potato soup, roasted beat salad and fried catfish. Using seasonal ingredients is key for True, and he lists local suppliers on his menu.
Like a number of other top chefs, True came indirectly into his profession. He was on a track scholarship at Old Miss when friends began telling him what a great cook he was. When track didn’t appear to be a long-term career choice, True took a career assessment that pointed him towards either becoming a chef or an engineer. “I didn’t do well in math courses, so ‘chef’ sounded like a better choice for me,” he says.
True attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., then worked for years in top Manhattan restaurants, including Aquavit, Bouley and Mesa Grill. Among his mentors was Cesar Ramirez, chef at the Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare. “I was working 80 hours a week in New York kitchens, so I gained a lot of experience in eight years,” True says.
After getting the “Hell’s Kitchen” treatment from the last New York chef he worked under, True decided to return to Mobile and open his own restaurant. That first restaurant, True, was over large and in a challenging location. It didn’t draw the crowds needed to pay the overhead. “So we did something that anyone else would have thought was the dumbest idea ever and opened a second restaurant,” True says.
The more casual and better-located True Midtown Kitchen soon gained popularity, which continues to grow, and the family decided to close the original fine-dining restaurant. “I wasn’t trained in business, so I had a steep learning curve. I had to learn the math and record keeping that no one thought I was capable of when I was in high school,” True says. “I take a lot of satisfaction in having gone into business myself and learned all aspects of it, in addition to running a kitchen.”
Kathy Hagood is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Homewood.