These are the books I featured on WBRC Fox 6 this month. Celebrate Fall with a children’s book about Black American heroes, a horror novel set in the Mexican countryside and two of fall’s most anticipated cookbooks. All are great reasons to celebrate. Some will make great gifts, too!
This book won the 2020 Caldecott Medal, was named a 2020 Newbery Honor Book and won the 2020 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award. It’s a poem about Black American triumph and tribulation. Originally performed for ESPN’s sports and pop culture website, The Undefeated, as a love letter to Black America, it was redone as a children’s book for ages 6 to 9. The work is about the trauma of slavery, the faith of the civil rights movement and the perseverance of some of our country’s greatest heroes. Intertwined are the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.; Langston Hughes; Gwendolyn Brooks; and others. It’s about the past, to be sure, but it’s also about people making a difference in the present and for the future.
This is an engaging (read page-turning) suspenseful horror novel set in the Mexican countryside. Perfect for right now! A glamorous—and brave—socialite gets a frantic letter from her newly-wed cousin begging for someone to save her. She says her husband, an English aristocrat, is poisoning her. Although Noemi is an unlikely hero, better suited for Mexico City’s cocktail party circuit than amateur sleuthing, she travels to High Place to help her cousin. What she discovers is strange family with a history of violence and madness. The house also has its own dark secrets and soon begins to haunt Noemi’s dreams. It’s all pretty scary.
This cookbook was years in the making but feels especially relevant right now. The book celebrates the diversity of Black American food and the Black chefs and cooks who make it. Marcus Samuelsson (the award-winning Ethiopian and Swedish chef, restaurateur, author and food activist) teamed up with Osayi Endolyn, a James Beard Award-winning writer; Yewande Komolafe, a professional chef, recipe developer, food stylist and photographer; and Atlanta-based chef Tamie Cook of Cook Culinary Productions to spotlight stories and dishes from Black chefs and writers from across our country. Edouardo Jordan from Seattle, Nina Compton in New Orleans and Devita Davidson in Detroit are a few of the people featured in this cookbook that is as much fun to read as it is to follow. The foods are comforting, and the writing encourages reflection.
This cookbook is written by a guy with a background in molecular biology. Don’t worry: There are 100 recipes here along with lots of beautiful photography! Go beyond the elements of taste (sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami) to discover how textures and aromas and visuals and even emotion affect the flavor of a dish and how we perceive it.
The contemporary Southern grill, led by the husband-and-wife team of Chef Rob McDaniel and Emily McDaniel, is a fresh, new take on classic dining, but the idea for this place has deep roots. It’s based on Rob’s fond memories of his maternal grandmother, Helen Frutiger, and the welcoming home she created in Oneonta when he was young.
“One day, it just kind of made sense that that would be the direction we wanted to go when we decided to open a restaurant,” Rob says. “I’ve always had that memory with me—of walking in the back door, through the carport … and her over on the grill cooking and my grandfather sitting in his chair and the way the table was set. … All those things are still so vivid.”
These scents and sounds and sights of his childhood – especially memories of “Nanny” cooking for her family over hardwood coals on her indoor grill – have stayed with Rob over the years. They were there when he studied at the New England Culinary Institute and when he worked for Johnny Earles at Criolla’s in Grayton Beach, Florida, and for Chris Hastings at Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham. They were there during his many years as executive chef at SpringHouse restaurant at Lake Martin. They were there as he collected five James Beard Foundation semifinalist nominations (2013-2017) for Best Chef South.
And they were there when he began to yearn for something different—something of his own.
“I was doing a devotional every day before I started my day, and I never really prayed to leave SpringHouse,” he says. “But I prayed for something to change, because I had gotten to a point where I really enjoyed my job but there was something missing. I didn’t know what it was. And then one day I went into work, opened my devotional and the Bible verse was Deuteronomy 1:6, which basically says ‘you’ve been on this mountain long enough.’ All of these things had kind of been placed in front of me to point me in the right direction, and then I read that and said, ‘Okay. It’s time to make this change.’ The Lord started opening doors, and we started walking through them.”
Emily adds, “I’m so proud of Rob. I’m so proud that he took a leap of faith, that he decided you have one life to live … He said he wanted to do something, (and) he went and did it. It’s just exciting to see. It really is.”
Helen opened in mid-August.
I visited with Rob and Emily for an Alabama NewsCenter story. You can read it here and see some video, too.
The restaurant is in a two-story 1920s-era shotgun-style building in downtown Birmingham. The McDaniels teamed up with Gavin Prier of Prier Construction, Ivy Schuster of Hatcher Schuster Interiors and Eric Hendon of Hendon + Huckestein Architects to take advantage of the building’s good bones. The thick beams, a concrete floor with character and beautiful original brick walls are the foundation of a restaurant that is elegant and welcoming. of a restaurant that is simply elegant and warmly welcoming.
In the long, narrow dining room downstairs, an art wall showcases a diverse collection—from tortoise shells and paintings and prints to turkey feathers and handmade baskets. An open-grill kitchen anchors the opposite side of the room, offering tantalizing glimpses of the grill and smoker and delicious aromas that cannot be ignored.
The natural, earthy elements on display in the dining rooms and bar and the wood-scented atmosphere throughout Helen echo his philosophy of respecting the land and using it as inspiration in his kitchen. Chef Rob, who wears a belt with the subtly colored, speckled pattern of a brown trout, is passionate about Southern foods, foraging and sustainability.
“My food has always been pretty simple,” he says. “I don’t try to manipulate it a lot. I don’t try to do a lot of things to it.” The key, he says, is “finding the best source for products and finding the best ingredients and let them kind of do what they need to do.”
The menu features items from the land, air and sea—prime meats and fowl and seafood. Things like a 45-day dry-aged Kansas City strip, smoked lamb shank, Manchester Farms quail stuffed with pine needles and finished with a pinecone syrup, grilled scamp with sauce gribiche.
Even with all that savory, smoky exuberance, a large portion of the menu is devoted to freshly picked ingredients from the soil. Okra pirlou, smashed cucumber and tomato salad, Romano beans with Carolina barbecue sauce, celery and blue cheese slaw, kale salad with parmesan cascabel chili dressing.
“We really wanted to be able to highlight farmers and their vegetables in the peak of their season when they are most delicious,” Rob says. “It was always important to us to be able to … provide the same experience for anybody that were to walk in the door—whether you’re a vegan or vegetarian or meat eater. I want you to feel like you’re getting the same experience as anybody else.”
For this, chef Rob relies on local purveyors like Trent Boyd of Boyd Harvest Farm and the folks at Ireland Farms and Belle Meadow Farm and BDA Farm for a menu driven by seasonality. In the middle of a Wednesday afternoon, Betty Maddox has driven from Chilton County with some of the last heirloom tomatoes of the season. She’s been supplying Rob with fresh produce for years.
“We want to give you the best that we can give you when it’s the best,” Rob says, “and if it’s not, then we don’t want to do that.”
So the tomato pie, served with pimento cheese and herb salad, which has been one of the most popular dishes for the past several weeks, will soon leave this seasonal menu until next summer. Another guest favorite, the warm angel biscuits with whipped cane syrup butter and a bit of sea salt will probably always be there.
Rob’s partner in this restaurant and in life is no stranger to the food business. A Birmingham native, Emily began her career in hospitality as part of the marketing team at Jim ‘N Nick’s BBQ. She is Helen’s hospitality director working with general manager Daniel Goslin (who was with Rob at SpringHouse) to oversee the front of the house. She loves her job.
“I’ve always known Rob was so talented, but it’s so nice to see it firsthand,” she says. “Before, we weren’t working together, and I would just hear from other people (that) they had a great dining experience with him. … Now, I’m actually taking food to the tables and interacting with guests who are eating his food, and I think that’s been the most rewarding thing. … It’s exciting to see that.”
Helen, they both say, is a reflection of how they live and how they entertain their friends at home. Emily’s focus is on creating a comfortable and celebratory atmosphere to complement the foods her husband cooks. “I want people to … have a cozy, warm, inviting and loving feeling when they come here,” she says. “We just, all the time, want people to feel comfortable.”
The McDaniels partnered with several local and regional artisans to create their engaging space. Small succulents adorn each of the richly grained wooden tables made by Magic City Woodworks, a nonprofit based in Birmingham that offers meaningful work through paid apprenticeships for unemployed young men. The metalwork is by John Howell of Madwind Studio on Lake Martin. He helped create the stunning glass-enclosed wine room upstairs. Each of the hundreds of bottles in the jewel-like, temperature-controlled room rests on meticulously placed iron rods.
The couple also pulled artful details from their own home—a collection of Southern Living plates from Rob’s mom, vintage rugs, an antique icebox that serves as storage near the front door, eclectic artwork they have collected over the years. Upstairs, a couple of antique French Champagne riddling racks are mounted on the textured brick walls. Two colorful paintings by guitarist Browan Lollar of St. Paul and the Broken Bones are behind the stunning stone-topped bar. A handsome trophy deer, from one of Rob’s hunting trips, hangs between them. Elsewhere, there’s a pheasant and a fox. There are duck decoys, a vintage fishing creel and watercolor paintings of colorful fishing flies.
And in the middle of it all, a large, beautiful painting of Helen, by Charleston, SC, artist Hannah Hurt, has a place of honor here. It was a gift to Rob from his sisters.
Since it opened on August 25, Helen has enjoyed a steady stream of customers and a buzzy social media following. But launching a restaurant in the middle of a global pandemic has not been easy. “I think anytime that you do something like this, to say that you’re not scared would be a little arrogant,” Rob says.
Health and safety protocols are part of every guest interaction.
They didn’t take out any seating or put signs on any tables, but guests are spaced six feet apart. “I just want people to come and have a good time—especially right now,” Rob says. “To be able to come in and take their minds off of all that’s going on. I’ve had people say, ‘Thank you for the small bit of normalcy.’”
Guests are asked to wear masks unless they are seated at their tables. There are temperature checks, hand sanitizer and contactless payment. Making sure his staff stay safe is a huge priority, Rob says. “If they feel safe, then everybody else will as well.”
Opening Helen has been a “big test of faith,” he adds. “But we’ve continued on that path. … There are definitely times when we kind of—I don’t want to say we question it, because that would not be practicing good faith. We go at it every day, and I think that probably the best way to sum it up is: If I wake up in the morning and I’m discouraged, I also have a voice in my head that says, ‘I’m here with you. Let’s do this.’”
When asked what he’s most proud of, Rob simply says, “my family.” He chokes up a little when he answers and so stops for a moment as he thinks about what to say next.
Turns out that was enough. The word family clearly encompasses so much—from the family matriarch who helped set Rob on his culinary journey to the guests he and Emily welcome as family each night to their restaurant family of employees and trusted purveyors to the couple’s own young family and what the future holds for them all.
The spotlight is on some of Birmingham’s top women in food, beverage and hospitality again this Saturday at Pepper Place Market! From chefs and bakers and mixologists to dietitians and restauranteurs and food writers, more women than ever are helping to keep our food community vibrant and fun and delicious!
Come see me and my fellow Dames at Pepper Place Market on Saturday from 7 a.m. to noon at our tent near Homewood Gourmet’s popular space. This week, we’re sharing sweets of all kinds from some of Birmingham’s culinary superstars and a few of our favorite restaurants.
Our tables will be full. Here’s some of what you can expect to find:
Creamy vanilla cheesecake by Dame Joy Smith of Sorelle
Each year, we have a big party to raise money for our scholarship and grant giving. Since we were organized in 2013, we have awarded nearly $60,000 to women of all ages all across our state who are pursuing their culinary dreams.
Our Southern Soiree in-person event is not possible this year, so we’ve pivoted to a Champagne and Fried Chicken drive-through pick-up picnic on Sunday, Oct. 18. (There will also be a vegetarian option.) Each basket will serve two people and will come complete—naturally—with a bottle of Champagne.
Additionally, we will have a virtual store with gift certificates, books, art, virtual cooking classes, a virtual wine tasting, a year of dinner playlists on Spotify, Southern Living’s Christmas Big White Cake and lots more.
The Cahaba River Fry-Down is a beloved celebration of the Cahaba River – the heart of America’s Amazon and our region’s primary drinking water source. This annual competitive cook-off is usually a huge community party, and it is the primary fundraiser for the Cahaba River Society. I’ve been a judge for the past few years and am thrilled to join Kathy G. Mezrano and George Sarris to judge again this year.
It will be different though. This year, since our community can’t be together in person, the CRS will offer a unique, interactive and FREE experience that everyone can enjoy!
Each day, starting on Tuesday, Sept. 29th at noon and leading up to the Big Day on Oct. 4th, they will reveal something new on the Fry-Down website. You’ll be able to watch as your favorite teams teach YOU how to cook those incredible dishes to “wow” your friends and family. You can even get your own complimentary Fry-Down Cookbook with all of this year’s recipes when you donate.
You’ll be entertained by featured acts and performers of Fry-Down so you can “taste” a little of what exciting things are to come. (This, too, shall pass!) You’ll explore your wild and wonderful Cahaba River through a virtual series of adventures, get fishing tips, and learn how to cook fish on a campout. Finally, you’ll get to vote on YOUR FAVORITE team to win this year … all from the comfort of your home!
Join me and join in the fun while doing your part to help us protect, conserve and restore our treasured River for future generations!
Get to a better, more mindful place. Then enjoy some brand new and not-so-new (but so worth your time!) fiction. These are the books I talked about this month on WBRC Fox 6.
Radical Compassion: Learning to Love Yourself and your World with the Practice of RAIN, by Tara Brach Ph.D., is perfect for right now. I have been listening to Tara Brach’s podcasts while I walk, and I’m better for that. Brach is a clinical psychologist and one of the most beloved and respected mindfulness teachers in America. In this book, she gently guides readers—with compassion and heartfelt stories—in healthy ways to deal with difficult times. Has there ever been a bigger need for this? Stress can make us operate on autopilot, cut off from our feelings and, in turn, from those we love. Brach has an easy-to-learn, four-step meditation called RAIN that quickly loosens the grip of difficult emotions. Each step in the practice (Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Nurture) is explained in detail and made memorable with stories from Brach and her students.
The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett, is one of the most-talked-about books right this minute. This novel is about race, during racially charged times. It’s also about family and history and how those determine our decisions and paths in life. This is the story of twin girls—Desiree and Stella—raised in a Southern town inhabited by lots of light-skinned Black people. They run away at age 16, and their lives take very different paths. One embraces her Black heritage and later returns to her hometown with her dark-skinned daughter. The other secretly passes for white and marries a white man who knows nothing about her family. The sisters are separated by miles and many lies, but there’s still a connection and their lives come together in unexpected ways.
Ali and Nino: A Love Story, by Kurban Said, is not new, but it has been a favorite of mine for a long time. It is one of the most beautiful love stories I’ve ever read. And set in exotic Baku, it satisfies the armchair traveler in me right now. East and West collide here, so do cultures and religions—Nino is Christian; Ali is Muslim. But these childhood friends share an abiding love. The story takes place in the Caucasus in the early 20th century. It’s a place of blood feuds and war and revolution. In this historical fiction, the story of the lovers follows the formation of countries—Georgia, Azerbaijan and modern Iran. So there are a lot of memorable moments between these pages.
When most restaurants right now are tweaking their business models to simply remain viable during a pandemic, one Indian restaurant in Birmingham is off to a fresh, new start.
The new Bay Leaf, rebranded and reimagined, used to be Bayleaf Authentic Indian Cuisine. The Highway 280 location opened in 2014; they expanded to Five Points South in 2019. Now it’s Bay Leaf Modern Indian Cuisine & Bar. It’s still plenty authentic, but there’s a European-trained Indian chef running these kitchens, and he’s pretty inventive and not at all shy about putting his own spin on traditional dishes.
Executive Chef Pritam Zarapkar (known as Chef Z) says, “I love to play with food! I experiment a lot and sometimes come up with a new product—trying to get myself better every time. … I don’t want to call myself the best. I’m just a learner. I like to call myself a learner, because life is a learning phase which is … going to go on and go on. And the more you learn, the more knowledgeable you get.”
Chef Z is a graduate of the Business and Hotel Management School in Luzerne, Switzerland, where he studied Culinary Sciences. With more than 15 years of executive chef experience, he has launched more than a dozen restaurants across Europe and in the United States. For Bay Leaf, he has teamed up with some local investors and Kiran Chavan, a former owner turned general manager.
“At Bay Leaf Modern Indian Cuisine, we have given a twist to traditional Indian food,” he says. And because Chef Z has a global view and likes to serve his guests foods he enjoys eating, there are some fusions on the menu, too. “It used to be a regular Indian restaurant, but as I came to Birmingham, I came to know that people here are foodies and they like to spend money on food. They are ready for change … people are adventurous over here.”
I toured the kitchen with Chef Z for an Alabama NewsCenter story. You can read the entire piece and listen to an interview with Chef Z here.
Chef Z draws inspiration from across the Indian subcontinent, from the northern plains to the southern coast, reflecting India’s varied geography, flavors and culture. He relies upon his knowledge of Indian, French and American cuisines to make foods that are fresh and exciting, offering dishes that feature pure, bright flavors with an emphasis on technique and quality ingredients like halal meats and heady spices imported from India.
This is Indian fine dining in the neighborhood of Highlands Bar & Grill. In fact, Highlands was one of several places Chef Z’s partners took him to show how much people in Birmingham value delicious authenticity. They also spent time at Chez Fonfon, Automatic Seafood and Oysters and a few other places where Chef Z quickly realized people here appreciate good food and they support their local restaurants.
He says he’s pleased with the warm welcome he’s gotten in Birmingham. “I am getting good support from all the locals, from all my guests. Everyone around here, they are making … the entire Bay Leaf team feel special, and … that makes me proud. That’s really a nice and positive encouragement for us.”
Inside the comfortably fancy Five Points location, which reopened mid-June, a chic, mirrored bar sparkles across the room from an original textured wall that indicates this building has some history. Soft lighting illuminates a large, colorful mural that depicts the diversity of India—the regions, religion, culture, art, clothes and people. It’s a fitting backdrop for a fragrant and spicy curated trip across the subcontinent.
There are traditional Indian favorites such as tikka masalas; tangy kababs; and smoky, clay oven-cooked tandoori chicken as well as modern, signature dishes like raspberry paneer tikka and tangy, slow-cooked, tamarind-glazed beef short ribs. There’s also a desi burger made with lamb cooked in the clay oven and served on a naan bun. You might want to start with some street food-style “chaats” (small snacks). The gol gappa shots, semolina puffs filled with black garbanzo, potato and mint-cilantro water, can be spiked with vodka if you want. The samosa duo is a traditional Indian snack with a savory filling of potatoes, onions and peas. The street dosa—rice and lentil crepes stuffed with vegetables—comes with a coconut chutney and lentil curry.
The main menu features a variety of traditional Indian curries: a rich and creamy tomato-based tikka masala; korma with a mild mix of spices, cashews and yogurt; and a spicy, slow-braised vindaloo, which is a Goan curry of lamb, goat or beef with potatoes. There’s also a saag curry made with baby spinach, fenugreek and other Indian greens. Soak up every bit of gravy with pillowy rounds of butter-drenched naan.
Chef Z’s training and global experience shine in some of his favorite recipes. The aromatic, coconut milk-based shrimp moilee is a curry from southern India. The lamb lal maas, from the deserts of Rajasthan, features savory, tender braised lamb in a fragrant, deeply red sauce that gets all its color from dried chilies.
Even the cocktails are lovely and exciting.
Birmingham native Kayla Goodall is the lead bartender, mixing signature cocktails like the Paan Old Fashioned with Indian gulkand sugars muddled with rye whiskey and bitters, garnished with a twist of citrus rind, a maraschino cherry and a large betel leaf. There’s a chai-tini that combines Indian chai tea with vodka, a splash of ginger liqueurs and a garnish of nutmeg. The Cardamom French 75 is a tasty, spice-forward drink made with cardamom, cognac, champagne and lime juice.
Because Chef Z’s partners are doctors, there are careful COVID-19 protections in place here, and extra attention has gone into the in-person, dining room experience. There’s no-touch digital ordering with QR code scanning (disposable menus are available for diners who prefer those). Tables are purposefully spaced apart for social distancing. The staff members (wearing protective gear, of course) are trained in proper preventive techniques by healthcare professionals. The space is regularly cleaned and sanitized throughout the day—morning, afternoon and evening. And there’s lots of hand sanitizer—in fact, there’s a big bottle on every table. All that’s reassuring, allowing diners to come back to a dining room and experience some semblance of normality.
Chef Z says, “We need to give something good to people because a lot of people are still wanting to go out.” And he’s proud of his team for helping make that possible.
“My team is making everything successful,” he says. “They’re doing that. They’re doing a lot of hard work—my kitchen team, my servers, my bartenders—everybody who’s associated with Bay Leaf. I’m proud of all of them … because they are my roots at this point, and they are making us successful.”
These are the books I featured on WBRC Fox 6 this month. From a children’s book about a young John Lewis to a close look at the power of a street address to delicious and different Southeastern Asian barbecue recipes to a book about eels–get ready to be informed and entertained.
This beautifully illustrated book for grades 2-5 tells the story of the childhood of one of America’s most respected Civil Rights icons: the late Congressman John Lewis. As a child, Lewis was tasked with taking care of the many chickens on his family’s farm, and he took care of them in his own way: emulating his church’s ministers by preaching to the hens. When they fought over their meal, he’d tell them: “Blessed are the peacemakers.” When a hen wouldn’t want to share, he’d tell her: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” The future Freedom Rider and U.S. congressman would even baptize newly hatched chicks. E.B. Lewis’s luminous, sun-dappled watercolor illustrations—perfectly capturing the light of an Alabama morning—are as captivating as the story.
The author travels the world and looks back in time (from ancient Rome to modern-day Kolkata) to discover how our addresses (or lack of an address) influence our politics, culture and technology. Addresses, she says, are about identity, class, race and (mostly) power. They are even critical to our health—shown on a map by 19-century British physician John Snow that illustrates the spread of cholera cases during an 1854 outbreak in London. The book is filled with interesting and entertaining information on people and places.
Fire up that charcoal grill! There are 60 mouthwatering recipes in this new book that show that Asian roadside barbecue is as delicious (and easy) as any of our American backyard versions. The recipes are from Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia and more. Learn techniques, flavor profiles and spices of each area as you use your smoker, grill, or even open flame to cook. Consider Chicken Satay with Coriander and Cinnamon, Malaysian Grilled Chicken Wings and Thai Grilled Sticky Rice. The author maintains that Southeast Asian-style barbecue translates easily to the American outdoor cooking style, so don’t expect these recipes to be Westernized or altered. The integrity of the recipes honor the people who created them as well as their traditions and cultures.
Life and science come together in this highly informative book that is part memoir, part natural-world nonfiction. The author grew up fishing for European eels with his father, and that led to a lifelong fascination with these creatures. Little, really, is known about the European eel. Where do they come from? What are they, anyway? Fish? Something else? Scientists have plenty of questions about how they breed and give birth, too. And why, after living for decades in freshwater, do they swim back to the ocean at the end of their lives? Svensson draws on history, literature and modern marine biology to create a book that explores our own place in this world—as humans, as animals ourselves.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
1 cup shishito peppers
1 cup Sungold tomatoes
3 tablespoons butter
½ cup roughly chopped basil
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.