Good News Stuff

Good News Fridays: Alabama’s Top Chefs Cook For A Good Cause

UPDATE: This post was written by Michael Tomberlin from Alabama NewsCenter.  Learn more at:

Chris Hastings and Fuller Goldsmith scurried between the stove and the serving station putting the finishing touches on their spring vegetable and crawfish risotto.  The pressure wasn’t nearly as great as what Hastings felt when he defeated Bobby Flay on “Iron Chef America” on the Food Network. Goldsmith was as focused as he was when he captured the “Chopped Jr.” title on the same network.  Now the two were working together, not for a title, but for a cause that is near and dear to both celebrity chefs.

The inaugural Children’s Table at Time Inc. Food Studios was a sellout Saturday night, raising money and awareness for Children’s of Alabama hospital. Alabama Power was the presenting sponsor and ShiptRegions BankBradley law firm and Brasfield & Gorrie were kitchen sponsors.  “We are blown away by the support from the community and all of the people who came out tonight,” Chandler Bibb, director of development at Children’s, said. “I know it will get bigger and better every single year. We sold out a long time ago with our tickets. We know we’re onto something good and we hope to do this year after year and make a big difference for our patients.”

Bibb said she was especially happy to see Goldsmith showing what he can do.  “Fuller has been a big inspiration for a lot of our patients at the hospital,” she said. “His passion for cooking has taken him all the way to TV and helped him win some awards. We’re glad he’s here tonight to help support chef Hastings.”

Goldsmith was a patient at Children’s, battling leukemia multiples times including having a bone-marrow transplant.  “Fuller and I’ve known each other for a long time,” said Hastings, owner of Hot and Hot Fish Club and Ovenbird in Birmingham. “Before he even got famous through ‘Chopped Jr.’ and ‘Top Chef Jr.,’ he used to come hang out with me in the kitchen and we would talk about food. I’m his sous chef tonight.”  Fuller said cooking alongside Hastings only solidifies his plans to attend the Culinary Institute of America.  “I’m definitely going,” he said. “That’s my goal.”

Big-name chefs

Hastings and Goldsmith were joined by other top chefs throughout Alabama (and one from Mississippi) for the Children’s Table event.  “I have three healthy girls. I have been blessed beyond belief,” said Elizabeth Heiskell, owner and chef of Elizabeth Heiskell Catering and The Farmstead on Woodson Ridge in Oxford, Mississippi, which provides produce to restaurants in Mississippi and Tennessee. “Any time someone asks me to help with a children’s hospital or children’s organization, you can just sign me up.”

Ben Vaughn is chef of Root to Tail restaurant in Mountain Brook and has a special connection to Children’s.  “I have a huge soft spot for anything that comes with children,” he said. “My wife works for Children’s Hospital, she works in oncology, and we have four children. Anything I can do that is with children is something I am always game for.”  Mauricio Papapietro of Brick & Tin in Birmingham felt the same way.  “The thought of a sick child is heartbreaking,” he said. “It’s a no-brainer. It’s something I would be a part of any day.”

Rob McDaniel, executive chef of Springhouse on Lake Martin, said becoming a father last year gave him new perspective.  “My wife and I had twins about nine months ago, so that’s kind of changed my thought process on a lot of things, so anything we can do to help Children’s Hospital” they will do, he said.

Dynamic culinary scene

Having so many chefs in one place was a reminder of how dynamic the food scene is throughout Alabama.  “If I look around and see great chefs like Rob McDaniel and David Bancroft at Acre and the boys down at Fisher’s killing it, not to mention Duane Nutter at Southern National in Mobile, it’s an exciting time for food all over Alabama,” Hastings said.  Hastings and chefs like Frank Stitt at Birmingham’s Highlands Bar & Grill are part of the “old guard” of Alabama chefs, but the young chefs – many of them once worked for Stitt or Hastings – are taking food in new and exciting directions.

“It’s good to see them take the mantle up and find their voice as young chefs and young entrepreneurs and young business owners and put your nose to the grindstone and put out dynamic food that tells their customers who they are as chefs,” Hastings said.  Papapietro said those roots are important.  “Birmingham gets a bad rep for being old-fashioned, which is really just a testament to the profound history and tradition that we have, which I think only contributes to our culinary roots,” he said. “There are just a lot of younger people who take all of that and make really positive things out of it. There is so much tradition to pull from, so if you throw in new influences, it just makes it even better.”

Vaughn said he often tells friends about the scene here.  “When I talk about Alabama to friends in Miami and Las Vegas and New York, it’s progressive,” he said. “We’re thinking outside of the box. The food is different, it’s innovative. You’ve got a lot of young chefs that have really done their homework and learned from some of the greatest chefs in the country.”  Leonardo Maurelli III is executive chef at Ariccia Trattoria and The Hotel at Auburn University and Dixon Conference Center. He said the culinary scene is both innovative and decidedly Southern.

“There is no place like it,” he said. “It has the best of everything you can find and some genuine, honest, caring people and the food is very reflective of that.”  James Boyce of Cotton Row in Huntsville and Galley and Garden in Birmingham said he has been pleased with how supportive the culinary ecosystem is in Alabama.  “You didn’t really know your neighbors in California and other states that I’ve worked in and when I got to Alabama, you know everybody,” he said. “It’s a small, tightknit state.”  And it’s growing.

Bill Briand, a third-year James Beard semifinalist for his work at Fisher’s Upstairs in Orange Beach, was preparing shrimp and grouper ceviche with a cumin cracker alongside Will Sams, executive chef of Playa, which will open at Sportsman Marina in April.  “Playa is going to be kind of in between what we do at Fisher’s (Upstairs) and what we do at (Fisher’s) Dockside,” Briand said. “Tons of seafood, a lot of Spanish influence, a lot of coastal flavors, super light, homemade tortillas, homemade tamales – just really great food, super fresh. We want to keep it easy and approachable for everybody.”

Cooking in Time

All the cooking Saturday took place at the Time Inc. Food Studios in Homewood.  Allison Lowery, director of Time Inc. Food Studios, said it was fun to show off the space and have such great chefs enjoy cooking in the kitchens.  “It’s a working studio,” she said. “We prepare over 14,000 recipes a year.”  Magazines including Southern LivingCooking LightReal SimplePeople and Food & Wine cook recipes for testing and photo shoots at the studio.

“We’re really proud of the talent that we have here,” Lowery said. “We recruit talent nationally. I’ve had to recruit talent to Birmingham in the last year. It’s easier and easier to do it because it’s a great food destination.”  Maurelli said others are discovering Alabama through food.  “We have so many amazing chefs in this state right now,” he said. “They’re all doing great things, they’re representing us so well – a lot of James Beard finalists and James Beard winners. It’s just an honor to be a part of it.”

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