Moving Forward: Chef Raquel Ervin Pivots to a Food Truck

On a Sunday in March of 2019, chef Raquel Ervin gathered together nearly 100 friends and family at the Hoover Randle Home & Gardens knowing full well, at some point that evening, they would be disappointed.

They were there for a watch party—to see Ervin and her sister Regina and niece Alexandria compete on Food Network’s “Family Food Showdown” against two brothers and their dad. 

Team Raquel did not win. 

A brief moment of shocked dismay at the outcome ultimately did not spoil this party. In fact, the consensus in the room that night was if those brothers hadn’t started crying—well, then, things would have turned out differently. 

Ervin certainly didn’t cry. 

Chef Raquel’s ribbon-cutting for her new food truck drew a few hundred people.

This is a young woman who is more apt to raise up her church choir-trained voice in gratitude for her opportunities. This is a young woman who knows there’s always another challenge, and even if that challenge is a pandemic, she’s going to meet it head-on.

Ervin was just days away from signing a lease on a restaurant space when the state began to shut down businesses. She had two weddings scheduled that weekend, with another two prepped for the following week. She had a catering contract with the Southwestern Athletic Conference to feed players, coaches, officials and others during the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. 

Then everything stopped.

“My plan was to do the brick and mortar first, which would allow me to have a steady clientele,” she says. “Then I was adding the truck the next year. So, I basically just flipped it and said, ‘Let’s do the truck now because this is what makes the most sense. This is where the demand is. People are at home, take it to them.’” 

And with that Ervin rebranded her business and kept it moving forward. Literally. 

I wrote about Chef Raquel for Alabama NewsCenter. You can see the entire story and a cool video here.

For days before this executive chef and owner took her Eat at Panoptic truck on the road, she teased her fans with mouthwatering, close-up photos of her gourmet sliders.

The PB&J burger features smooth peanut butter and blackberry-habanero jam.

One day it was the PB&J burger with smoked bacon, creamy peanut butter and a house-made blackberry-habanero jam. Another day, she showcased the 2 a.m. burger topped with hash browns and a fried egg. 

Then it was the Porky Pig with layers of smoked bacon, country ham and Conecuh sausage. Her crab cake sliders are pan-seared to order and topped with a house remoulade. There’s a barbecue chicken slider with a savory Alabama white sauce and another chicken option with homemade pesto aioli. 

The 12-hour brisket slider is one of the most popular menu items on the truck.

By the time she debuted her 12-hour beef brisket, artfully layered onto a Martin’s potato roll and topped with melted American cheese and a tangy-sweet horseradish and brown sugar glaze, people were making plans to attend the July 3rd ribbon-cutting.

People came for the food and found a block party, too.

They gathered in an Avondale parking lot for her food and an impromptu block party. They held umbrellas against the hot sun as they stood in a long, socially distant line. They watched the news crews. They did The Dougie and The Wobble to music from the DJ set up in a parking space. At noon, Ervin welcomed the crowd, suddenly singing a few lines from “Way Maker” because she felt moved to do so. Then she cut the ribbon and got to work.

She and her team served 584 meals that day—there were nearly 140 orders in the first hour.

Ervin, 34, started Panoptic Catering in 2014. Today, her full-service catering company handles corporate conferences, weddings, baby showers and more. 

Ervin’s food, “Southern soul with Cajun flair,” is influenced by the dishes her grandmother and mother cooked for her family when she was growing up in Mobile.  “I had a lot of exposure at a young age to cooking,” she says. “My roots are Southern soul food.” Her catering menu features pulled chicken and pork barbecue, sautéed Cajun corn on the cob, seasoned collard greens, and shrimp and grits. But she also offers Tuscan pesto pasta salad, homemade Swedish meatballs, wonton spinach dip cups, Buffalo smoked wings, grilled chicken with an Italian cream sauce, Philly steak and cheese sliders, and mini Nashville-style chicken and Belgian waffles. 

She credits working in her sister’s restaurants with pointing her toward a career in food. She says she did everything there “including quit several times.” She was 12 when she started there.

“My sister let us do anything we said we could do. If we said we wanted to try it, she’d let us do it. I learned ‘back of the house,’ how to prepare big quantities of cornbread and chicken, whatever she had on the menu. Then she would send me up front. Tell me, ‘You’ve got to fix the plate, ring the customer up.’ We were taught money, how to handle a customer, things like that. She’d send me out there to bus a table. … We literally could open the store, as teenagers, me and my niece, without her. I had to be no more than 16, and she was letting me run it.” 

The crab cake slider is delicious, and the homemade chips are a must-have.

Ervin has an innate sense of practicality. She knew that soul food was not feasible on a food truck, so she looked for a niche that was missing in the Birmingham market and decided upon specialty sliders topped with lots of things. She based the variety on what has proven popular with her regular catering clients during the past six years. Two of those items are the 12-hour brisket and the crab cakes, and those are the most popular sliders on her truck.

“One of the things that would set my food apart is everything’s scratch—homemade,” she says. “All of my sauces, even on the truck, I make all of the sauces from scratch. Everything on the catering side, my recipes are all scratch. I don’t have anything processed.”

Steering her business hasn’t always been easy, and she’s proud of overcoming obstacles. “Just being able to do that … having the tools and the skills and the willpower to just keep pushing,” she says. “It may be the competitive spirit, but I think it’s just drive. It’s my nature. My whole family’s wired like that. We’re a bunch of push-forward, maximum-drive individuals.”

She believes if you “stick to a plan, execute your plan, and don’t give up along the way, no matter what comes in the middle of it, you’ll find the light if you just stay the path. A lot of times we give up because it’s not easy. If you really want to see things go a certain way, and you have that passion for it, you’ve got to stick to it.”

Even during a pandemic.

“In my life, I’ve noticed that everything that has happened to me or through me … I always see things come full circle. It never fails,” she says. “No matter how ugly stuff looks, it always comes back some kind of way. It may be a different way, but it’s the best way. … I live by that. This is clearly where I’m supposed to be.” 

Eat at Panoptic

www.eatatpanoptic.com 

205-319-1611

info@eatatpanoptic.com

Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. the Eat at Panoptic food truck will be parked at 2627 Crestwood Blvd. in Birmingham. Locations for dinners from 4-8 and Saturday lunches will vary. Follow the truck on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for specific location information.

You can access the food truck menu here.

Save the Restaurants We Love

I just got a text from my friend George Sarris who owns The Fish Market Restaurant on Birmingham’s Southside. George’s restaurant has a special place in my heart.

When our kids were young, Rick and I had a weekly date night there. That was at the old place–the one that looked like a big styrofoam box. We’d crowd around a table with friends and strangers. It was not unusual for people visiting Birmingham from around the world to realize they knew someone at that table.

When George moved across the parking lot to his current location in a wonderful old warehouse with a custom bar and centuries-old timbers, my friend Lisa DeCarlo and I went with him and a small group to Greece (and then Lisa and I went to Turkey) to gather furnishings and decor (including genuine Greek fishing boats) for the place.

Our oldest child got her first job at The Fish Market and worked there as a cashier for years through high school and during summers home from college. To say she learned a lot about life there is a huge understatement.

Freshly shucked oysters and ice-cold local beer at The Fish Market bar are two of my favorite things in this world.

So, yes, this restaurant means something to me. And I’m not alone in this. So I want you to read what George sent me. Then do whatever you can to save the independent restaurants we love.

Here is George’s message in his own words:

Restaurants are the common ground of life in the United States. During my 50 years as a restaurant operator, I have watched customers grow up, get married, have kids, pass away – and now their kids are regular customers. If someone dies, gets married, has children, or a birthday party – we go to  a restaurant. In my home country of Greece, we have the coffee shop – the roundtable of the community – but here, it is restaurants. Not everyone likes to drink at bars, or dance in clubs, or even go to church, but everyone eats. If something happens to restaurants in the United States, then the way of life that we have come to cherish is at risk of changing irrevocably.

Without substantial help, I do not see 80% of independent restaurants surviving into 2021. 

My Name is George Sarris and I have lived in Birmingham, Alabama, for the past 50 years. I immigrated through New York on April 1, 1969 from Tsitalia, a small village in the Greek Peloponnese. Our voyage was with the 2nd-to-last passenger ship that ferried immigrants to the United States from Europe.

My village consisted of mostly subsistence farming, and our 9-person household family struggled to make ends meet, with  5 kids, 2 parents and 2 grandparents. We had a “modest” house: 2 rooms reserved for the grandparents, parents, children, a bedroom for the goats and sheep, and the last bedroom was for our donkey and Truman, a Missouri Mule. 

Our mule was given to us under the Marshall Plan, a $700 million aid package provided by the United States to assist Europeans in the wake of World War II. There were 28 Missouri mules given to families in Tsitalia, and we named ours Truman. Most everyone in the village gave their mules American names. 

At the age of 12, the children left the mountainous village to begin high school in the plains down below. Our parents stayed above, tending to the small groves in the terraced rocky hills, while we lived amongst ourselves. By necessity, we were self-sufficient: cleaning, washing clothes, cooking,  all handled by kids no older than 15 . We were taught to take care of ourselves from a young age–as long as you can work, everything else will fall into place.  

At the age of 18, I started working in restaurants. I paid my dues in every position of the business. I worked a stint in New York to learn a little bit about delis, so I went with what I knew.  I opened a “Kosher Style” deli in downtown Birmingham. Of course back then in Birmingham, “Kosher  Style” might even include a little pork.  I have owned  restaurants for the last 48 years and have always applied the same model that I learned back then: work hard, keep cost low, and appeal to blue and white collar clientele alike. 80 hour work weeks are the rule, not the exception, and that remains true to this day. 

For the last 37 years I have owned The Fish Market Restaurant on the Southside of Birmingham. When we opened in 1983, there were 8 seats in the dining room; today there are 375. I have been fortunate to have a long-lasting restaurant, and it all goes back to what I learned in the beginning of my career: work hard, save your money, and be fair to customers. If you can do those three things, then you can make a living. 

For the first time in my life, that is no longer true. My business’ future is no longer in my hands. 

My son Dino has worked with me from the age of 9 years old. He is 32 and now, I don’t even know if the restaurant business will be for him over the next four decades as it was for me.   

The US employs over 11.5 million people via the restaurant industry, with countless others whose jobs are directly tied to the industry via farming, manufacturing, importing, shipping, transporting, etc. At the Fish Market, we employ some of the most marginalized in our community: those who have been afforded minimal education;  persons who have been previously incarcerated (and, in some cases, currently incarcerated), and those experiencing homelessness. These Birmingham residents can find a career at our restaurant.  And, more importantly, they can grow from that position. The restaurant industry thrives on giving people chances, and sometimes second (or third) chances. 

Additionally, independent restaurants are behind community events, fundraisers, helping local schools and churches, and any worthwhile cause. Because we are a big part of everyday life and we live among our customers. We stake our future in our communities. 

As an independent operator, I wear many hats with my staff: preacher, therapist, policeman, social worker, banker, and, above all, a friend. Personally, I see restaurants as a way to teach those of us, like myself, who grew up without some of the basics – personal hygiene, social etiquette, promptness, self control, and stress management. There is a learned art to keep smiling in the face of a customer who is having a bad day. It seems to me that if you learn these basic principles then you can handle most of life’s difficulties. 

So now, more than ever, our country’s independent restaurants need help. After Fish Market’s initial closure on March 17, we received the Payroll Protection Plan/CARES Act (PPP) money to cover 8 weeks of operational costs. We were able to pay all critical expenses:  rent, staff salaries, utilities, interest on existing loans, etc.. But, once that all was paid, we were back to square one. There was nothing left to keep the business going beyond those 8 weeks. The CARES Act did not address the actual problem that business owners were facing: the pandemic (and restrictions placed on businesses) were not going away anytime soon. 

The newly proposed “Prioritized Paycheck Protection Program (P4) Act”, seems, on its face, to have improved from the previous bailout. Businesses will have to show, through financial records, that their business is still being negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.  In the spring, numerous businesses receive grants who were thriving yet still remained eligible for huge amounts of money that could have helped those of us who are genuinely in a crisis. The P4 Act could provide funds to those who truly need it, and will allow us to keep our industry afloat through the end of the year. 

Truman, along with 28 other mules, was instrumental in the survival of our small mountain village in Greece. 70 years later, the community is still there, preserving the way of life that they hold dear. If the airlines, farmers, hospitals, bankers, carmakers, insurance companies, Wall Street, and multinational corporations can get a caravan of mules, when will the independent restaurant industry get theirs?

The restaurant business has never in the history of this country needed help from the government. We were able to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps in order to make it. This time, all we need from the government is a mule, and we can take it from there.

Farm Market Easy Dinner

What to do with our beautiful abundance of farm-fresh peppers and tomatoes? Add some potatoes and fragrant green curry broth to them. Then put an egg on it.

After doing the fantastically easy drive-thru farmers’ market at Pepper Place, I was looking to make something special with my plump, beautiful cherry tomatoes from Penton Farms in Verbena. I wanted to cook them just a bit so I could still really taste how fresh they are.

This recipe for Fried Eggs with Tomatoes, Peppers and Potatoes in Green Curry Broth sounded perfect. It’s from Chris Weber, the chef at a restaurant called The Herbfarm just outside of Seattle. You should know that Chef Weber is the youngest chef overseeing any of America’s 47 5-Diamond restaurants.

We found Chef Weber’s recipe and story in the Wall Street Journal–in that paper’s Slow Food Fast series.

During the past few months, this fine-dining chef has had to pivot and then pivot again. When The Herbfarm closed, Chef Weber provided free three-course dinners for area front-line workers, sending out more than 44,000 boxes to these heroes. When that funding dried up, he turned to a nearby hotel and started cooking high-end dishes for the guests there. He says he’ll restart the free meal program if the need arises.

Chef Weber says this dish is a “good late-night. When you’re tired and need something really good and fast but not too heavy.”

I think it’s a great (and quick and easy) summer weeknight dinner that takes full advantage of our wonderful, fresh local produce. I also think you’ll enjoy it.

Ingredients

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 cloves garlic,thinly sliced

1½ tablespoons green curry paste

3 cups chicken stock

10 baby or fingerling potatoes, halved lengthwise

Kosher salt

4 eggs

1 cup shishito peppers

1 cup Sungold tomatoes

3 tablespoons butter

½ cup roughly chopped basil


Directions

In a large, high-walled pan, heat olive oil and garlic over medium-high heat. Add curry paste and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in stock, potatoes and a pinch of salt. Bring to a simmer and cook potatoes until fork-tender, 15-20 minutes.

Once potatoes are halfway through cooking, set a large sauté pan over high heat. Once very hot, lower heat to medium-high and add half the butter. Crack half the eggs into pan. Once whites begin to set, arrange half the peppers and half the tomatoes around eggs. Salt yolks and vegetables. Roll vegetables around and once they blister in spots, after about 2 minutes, transfer eggs and vegetables to a plate. Repeat with remaining butter, eggs, tomatoes and peppers.

Distribute potatoes and some broth among four shallow bowls. Spoon in tomatoes and peppers, and top each serving with a fried egg. Scatter basil over the top.

Total time: 20 minutes

Serves 4

Fox 6 Books July 2020

These are the books I featured on WBRC Fox 6 this month. You can see the segment here. One eerily mirrors the time we are in right now. We also have a fascinating look at Winston Churchill from bestselling author Erik Larson, a book prescription for children and a way to breathe easier.  

The End of October by Lawrence Wright was published in April with uncanny timing. This medical thriller is a page-turning novel about a flu pandemic that mirrors much of what’s happening in our world today. When the World Health Organization sends Henry Parsons, a microbiologist-epidemiologist for the CDC, to Indonesia to investigate some mysterious deaths in a refugee camp, he knows pretty quickly that there’s a problem. But when an infected man joins the millions of worshippers in the annual Hajj to Mecca, a global pandemic begins. As Henry tries to save the world, his own family is struggling to simply survive back home in Atlanta. This novel takes us from the deserts of Saudi Arabia to the White House to African and South American jungles and to illicit labs where the disease might or might not have started. The novel is rooted in facts, and Wright weaves in information about historical epidemics like the 1918 flu, modern Russian cyber- and bio-warfare and the evolving science of viruses. That makes this story even scarier.

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson is a portrait of courage and impeccable leadership and a close-up look at Winston Churchill and London during the Blitz. It takes place in the course of one year. On Churchill’s first day in office, Hitler invaded Holland and Belgium. During the next twelve months, the Germans would wage a relentless bombing campaign, killing 45,000 Britons. It was up to Churchill to hold his country together, teach his people “the art of being fearless” and persuade the Americans that Britain was an ally worth helping. The book relies heavily on a great many wartime diaries and, with almost day-to-day focus, takes readers inside 10 Downing Street and the prime minister’s country home, Chequers. It is an intimate look at Churchill and his family, including his wife, Clementine, and their youngest daughter, Mary; his “Secret Circle” of friends and advisors and some of the citizens who lived through the bombing.

Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses by Kimberly and James Dean is a book about positivity for young readers! Pete the Cat wakes up feeling grumpy—nothing seems to be going his way. But some magic sunglasses—and some selfless sharing—teach Pete that a good mood has been inside him all along. This book is being distributed by pediatricians to some of our state’s youngest and most underserved children during Reach Out and Read-Alabama’s 11th annual Rx for Summer Reading campaign to encourage families to read aloud together.  For 14 years, Reach Out and Read-Alabama’s partnerships with pediatric practices and clinics across our state have placed more than 1.7 million brand-new books in the hands of Alabama’s youngest and most underserved children. Currently, 52 of Alabama’s pediatric practices and clinics serve as Reach Out and Read-Alabama program sites in 30 counties, impacting 40 percent of the state’s children under the age of five.  “Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses seems to be the perfect book for this summer,” says Polly McClure, statewide coordinator for Reach Out and Read-Alabama. “This book, in particular, promotes positive thinking, which is so important in these uncertain times.” Go to http://www.roralabama.org to learn more about the Rx for Summer Reading program and how you can help get books to children.

Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor is premised on this fact: There is nothing more essential to our health and wellbeing than breathing, but most of us don’t do it correctly. Nester is a journalist who traveled the world to figure out why we (as a species) have lost that ability. He visits ancient burial sites, secret Soviet facilities, walks the streets of São Paulo and spends time with choir schools in New Jersey. He talks to men and women who are exploring the hidden science behind ancient breathing practices like Pranayama and Sudarshan Kriya and sits down with scientists doing cutting-edge studies into pulmonology, psychology, biochemistry and human physiology. Modern research shows that making even slight adjustments to the way we inhale and exhale can enhance athletic performance; rejuvenate internal organs; effect snoring, asthma and autoimmune disease; and even straighten scoliotic spines. Breath will get you thinking about this most automatic and basic biological function. You’ll never breathe the same again.  

I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and BooksThe Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.