A Tastemaker with Southern Sensibility
Leading a group of chefs changing the country’s perception of Southern cuisine is Chris Hastings, chef/owner of Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham (one of the best restaurants in the South, if not the whole country). Chris and his wife Idie have been serving modern Southern/French cuisine that celebrates Alabama’s farmers and fishermen since they opened their restaurant in 1995. Last year, Chris not only won a James Beard award, but he also beat chef Bobby Flay at his own game: battle sausage on Iron Chef America. We talk with Chris about his favorite local ingredients, Birmingham’s food scene and Southern chefs to keep an eye on.
AndrewZimmern.com: What inspired you to become a chef?
Chris Hastings: I was fortunate enough to grow up with a mother that cooked, with a garden out back and a family that ate dinner together. Food was a part of our daily life. I did a lot of hunting and fishing too. How I became a chef was accidental really. My mother died when I was young, 18 years old. I took a year off after high school to stay at the restaurant I was working in because I liked the people, the work and the solace it gave me. I moved from the front of the house to the back where a new chef, a graduate of Johnson & Wales, took me under his wing and taught me a lot daily. At the end of that year I wasn’t feeling four years of traditional college. I liked the realness of the chef business and got it instinctively. That chef wrote a letter for me to Johnson & Wales. I didn’t think I was going to be a chef; I just knew I was going to culinary school.
AZ.com: You were ahead of the farm-to-table craze when you opened your restaurant in 1995, what are your favorite local ingredients to work with?
CH: That depends on the season. Heirloom tomatoes, wild foraged ingredients, Gulf seafood, heritage pigs, fresh eggs, local dairy product, persimmons, field peas, okra.
AZ.com: How has Birmingham’s food scene changed since you opened the restaurant?
CH: When we first opened in ‘95 there were very few local organic farms. Over the years, local purveyors have really become more prevalent, providing everything from heritage animals, grains of all types, citrus and dairy products. It has been a amazing revolution and one we are fortunate to have.
AZ.com: You and your wife, Idie, are business partners. What’s the dynamic like? Best part of working with your significant other?
CH: Make no mistake after 17 years of working together everyday we have had some trying times. All of those times both good and otherwise have forged us into better owners, life partners, restaurateurs. She is my best friend and toughest critic. The work she does with our staff and managing me is at the heart of our success.
AZ.com: Has winning a James Beard award affected your business or your goals for the next 10 years?
CH: Absolutely. Business is as good as it has ever been. We are very fortunate. We have worked all of our life for that great honor. It is inevitable for an award of that stature to get you thinking about the next 10 years and how your business can and should evolve. We are in the process of doing that right now.
AZ.com: You’re an advocate for the Alabama Seafood Commission. How has the state’s seafood industry fared since the oil spill?
CH: Fortunately for the seafood industry, despite the magnitude of such an enormous spill, testing and research has shown that water conditions are safe and there are no traces of oil or chemicals associated with the oil in the gulf seafood. We will continue to work hard to make sure everyone knows they can get healthy delicious safe seafood from our Alabama seafood fishing community.
AZ.com: As Southern restaurants become more and more popular, any up-and-coming chefs to keep an eye on?
CH: Yes, Rob McDaniel with SpringHouse on Lake Martin is doing tremendous work. Keep your eye on Chris Newsome with Ollie Irene here in Mountain Brook Village. Also, Craig Deihl with Cypress in Charleston is a great talent and deserves to be the next Best Chef in the Southeast James Beard winner. And Andrew Michael and Kelly English in Memphis. Jeff McInnis at Yardbird, a new restaurant in Miami. Killer!
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
CH: Not much! We usually have yogurt, black raspberry jelly for my late night PBJ with Wright’s Dairy milk. Fresh fruits and veggies and cold Back Forty Naked Pig Pale Ale beer. Moonshine in the freezer… Lots of water cause we believe in drinking LOTS of water.
Check out Chris’ recipe for Alabama Bouillabaisse.
Chris Hastings first discovered his appreciation for food during family vacations in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. These explorations through taste and travel stayed with him, and post high school Hastings deferred his college acceptance to work in the kitchen at Silver Cricket in Charlotte, NC. There, Executive Chef recognized his skill and suggested applying to culinary school in lieu of a traditional college education. Heeding this advice, Hastings enrolled in Johnson & Wales in Providence, Rhode Island.
After graduation, Hastings returned to the South, accepting a position at the Ritz Carlton in Atlanta where he first learned to apply European influences to southern cuisine. But, it was on a weekend trip to Birmingham that Hastings met Chef Frank Stitt of the acclaimed Highlands Bar and Grill. The two stayed in touch and it wasn’t long before Hastings relocated to Birmingham to work for Stitt as chef de cuisine, where he also helped to open Bottega, Stitt’s Mediterranean restaurant.
During his time with Stitt, Hastings traveled to California where he met his future mentor, Chef Bradley Ogden. In 1989, he relocated to San Francisco, to work alongside Ogden while he opened the Lark Creek Inn. During his tenure in California, Hastings witnessed the rise of the farm‐to‐table movement first‐hand and could regularly be found visiting farmer’s markets to source the freshest, local ingredients.
But, once again, the South beckoned and in 1991 Hastings returned to Birmingham with the goal of opening a new restaurant alongside his wife, Idie. They opened the Hot and Hot Fish Club in 1995, offering contemporary American cuisine with Southern influences and supporting the work of local artisans in both the kitchen and front of house.
In subsequent years, Hastings released his first cookbook: The Hot and Hot Fish Club Cookbook, A Celebration of Food, Family and Traditions (Running Press, October 2009) and began a side project consulting with other chefs, restaurateurs, and real estate developers on food service operations that benefit their surrounding communities though serving local, memorable, and authentic cuisine. Hastings has also become an active member and fervent advocate for the Alabama Seafood Commission as well as a consultant and culinary advisor to restaurants across the country and the Director of the Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation’s Culinary Council.
In February of 2012, Hastings competed in the Food Network’s Iron Chef: America challenge and triumphed over Chef Bobby Flay in Battle: Sausage. And just a few months later, was recognized by the James Beard Foundation award as the 2012 Best Chef: South. He lives in Birmingham with Idie and their two sons, Zeb and Vincent.