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stars Fe ll o n

Alabama Thanks to the abundance of talented chefs acros s the state, alabama has become a culinary destination. text by thomas M. little

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Frank Stitt

When Chef Stitt opened Highlands Bar and Grill in 1982, he ignited a culinary awakening across Alabama. Classically trained by masters in the United States and Europe, Stitt has an artful technique and dedication to local producers that has set a standard for Southern chefs. Many chefs who have worked with Stitt have gone on to open acclaimed restaurants of their own. A pioneer of Southern cuisine, Stitt has earned a multitude of recognitions, including a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast. “I was fascinated with French food and culture. I started working as an apprentice to Fritz Luenberger, a Swiss chef who took me under his wing at his restaurant Casablanca. That began my culinary career,” says Stitt. While in Europe, he began developing the unique marriage of French and Southern cuisine that would become his trademark. In 1982, Stitt opened Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham. Following the success of his first restaurant, he ventured into Italian cuisine with Bottega. This restaurant opened in 1988, also on Highland Avenue. The chef ’s third endeavor, Chez Fonfon, brings French bistro cooking and a true bistro atmosphere to Birmingham’s Five Points neighborhood.

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Chris Hastings

An acclaimed culinary innovator and champion of the farm-to-table movement, Chef Hastings is the executive chef and co-owner of the celebrated Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham. Among many accolades, Hastings received the James Beard Award for Best Chef: South in 2012. Many may recognize him for besting Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America. With his degree from Johnson & Wales University, Hastings fulfilled his journeyman years in restaurants across the United States and honed his skills working with seasoned chefs like Volker Frick. In 1984, Hastings served as a sous chef at the Ritz Carlton in Buckhead. In 1986, he worked as the chef de cuisine of Frank Stitt’s Highlands Bar and Grill. “At Hot and Hot we source our ingredients from apiaries, fisheries, farms, all that’s around us,” he says. “What you’re eating should inform where you’re standing. Eating fresh, eating local, that’s all inherent in farm-to-table cooking.” An avid outdoorsman, Hastings incorporates freshly foraged materials into his cooking as well. In 2015, Hasting opened his second restaurant in Birmingham, Ovenbird. The casual restaurant is located in Pepper Place.

James Boyce

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After opening several successful restaurants in Huntsville, James Boyce is the latest chef to deliver fine dining on Birmingham’s Highland Avenue. Before arriving in Alabama, Boyce attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York’s Hyde Park. While in the city, he worked at Le Cirque, building a foundation with the guidance of master chef Daniel Boulud. He joined the Phoenician in 1990, where he was nominated for a James Beard Award. Five years later Boyce worked as executive chef of Loews Coronado Bay Resort, earning the distinction of Top Toque. He joined The Studio in Laguna Beach in 2003, earning the restaurant a Mobil Five-Star Award. In 2008, he established his new enterprise in Huntsville, Boyce Restaurant Concepts. While an expert in classic French technique, Boyce has devoted each of his restaurants to a unique style of cooking. Located on Huntsville’s courthouse square, Cotton Row showcases modern American cuisine, while Pane e Vino offers gourmet Italian food and wine. Commerce Kitchen rounds out his Rocket City restaurants with turn-of-the-century Southern cooking. In 2014, Boyce opened his latest restaurant in Birmingham, Galley & Garden, where he applies his classical training to Southern standards.

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Mac Russell From a country farm in Central Alabama to the Shindigs food truck in Birmingham, Mac Russell has always been at home in the kitchen. Russell chose to pursue cooking/ catering after college, with stints at Culinard, Ross Bridge Resort, and Flora-Bama. He also worked with Bud Skinner at Jubilee Seafood in Montgomery and with Chris Hastings at Birmingham’s Hot and Hot Fish Club. In the summer of 2011, Russell journeyed to Texas to pick up a food truck. Dubbed “Miss Piggy,” the truck became his mobile catering machine, the Shindigs food truck. The kitchen-on-wheels serves dishes inspired by Russell’s old family gatherings, with input from his travels to major food cities. While Shindigs can always be found on the road in Birmingham, Russell is planning to launch a brick-and-mortar restaurant. The new establishment, Whistling Table, is tentatively scheduled to open later this year in Forest Park.

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Clif HOLT “By age 5, I was hanging on my grandma’s apron strings,” says Chef Holt. Following a military career, Holt found himself working at Highlands Bar and Grill. “I learned a lot from Frank Stitt there,” he recalls. Holt also managed to moonlight at several other fine restaurants like Hot and Hot Fish Club. After accruing some serious experience in the kitchen, he knew he had found his calling. In 2003, he opened Little Savannah Restaurant & Bar in Birmingham, naming the restaurant after his daughter. In 2015 Holt departed to serve as the cooking school chef at the Grand Bohemian in Mountain Brook, but has since returned to the restaurant he started.

Born in Panama and raised in Alabama, Leo Maurelli credits his family and Southern environment for sparking his interest in cooking. Maurelli’s family moved to Mobile in the 1990s, and he later attended Auburn to study hotel and restaurant management. With his degree, Maurelli worked as a banquet cook and sous chef. He began developing his technique at The Hotel at Auburn University before heading to Montgomery. “It takes years to make a style your own,” he says. “I’ve found a lot of similarities in the way Southerners, Latinos, and Italians eat.” While in the capital city, he worked at Central before receiving a call to return to The Hotel at Auburn University. “A position had just opened, so I knew it was the right time to come back,” he says. Now he is the executive chef for the entire hotel and oversees its restaurant, Ariccia Trattoria.

rob McDaniel

Chef McDaniel has been nominated four times for the prestigious James Beard Award for Best Chef: South, most recently in 2016. Long before he ever cooked with some of the South’s most influential chefs, he was taking notes from his earliest inspirations, his grandmothers. McDaniel studied hotel and restaurant management at Auburn, then continued his education at the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont. Prior to arriving at SpringHouse, McDaniel worked for Johnny Earles at Criolla’s in Florida, as well as restaurateur Drew Robinson at Jim ‘N Nick’s. He also served as sous chef for three years at Chris Hastings’s Hot and Hot Fish Club. In 2012, McDaniel joined Hastings on Iron Chef America, in which the Alabama ambassadors beat celebrity chef Bobby Flay in a cooking competition. In 2009, SpringHouse opened on Lake Martin with McDaniel at the helm. His classic Southern background is obvious in the menu, as are his dual influences of rustic and refined.

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Leo Maurelli

Daniel Briggs

In the mid-1990s, Chef Briggs joined the staff of Frank Stitt’s Highlands Bar and Grill. “I was able to gain valuable tutelage and inspiration from an amazing staff,” he says. After Highlands, he studied at Johnson & Wales University in Vale, Colorado. While there, he worked at the Tyrolian, an Austrian game house. Returning to Birmingham, Briggs joined the newly opened Hot and Hot Fish Club. “It was a powerful influence on my career,” he says. Following his time at Hot and Hot, Briggs became a private chef and in 2000, he partnered with George McMillan to open Daniel George. Now referred to as DG, the restaurant in Mountain Brook Village serves resourceful American cuisine from a seasonally adaptable menu.


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Chris & Laura Zapalowski

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David Bancroft

“Growing up in Texas allowed me to start experimenting with grilling and smoking at an early age,” Chef Bancroft says. As much as Bancroft enjoyed cooking, the payoff came when the entire family gathered around the dinner table. “I think for me, the communal aspect of sharing the food you’ve made with your friends and family is just as important as the technique, time, and labor that goes into cooking,” he says. “Food without fellowship is just not as fun. I hope that every guest that comes to Acre feels like part of our family.” Bancroft spent several summers in Louisiana, working on a charter fishing boat. On board, he would prep dishes based on the catch of the day. While attending Auburn University, he served as kitchen manager of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity. He clocked seven years at the Amsterdam Café, and later worked at the Auburn University Club as chef/consultant. In 2013, Bancroft opened Acre with a vision of sustainability for the small lot. “I wanted our restaurant to be as sustainable as possible by utilizing every square inch of our acre,” he says. The space is brimming with garden beds of herbs, seasonal produce, and edible flowers. Fruit trees line the parking lot with pears and figs. “My favorite thing to do is transform traditional Southern ingredients and use them in unexpected ways,” he says.

Chris Zapalowski co-owns Homewood Gourmet with his wife, Laura. Before taking over the neighborhood restaurant, the couple spent years in the Cajun cooking capital of New Orleans, seasoned by some of the Crescent City’s most recognizable chefs. While living in New Orleans, Chris served as a prep cook at Peristyle, working with Anne Kearney. He also worked as a line cook and sous chef for Emeril Lagasse at Emeril’s Restaurant. After moving to Birmingham in 2005, Chris served as chef de cuisine at Hot and Hot Fish Club until 2010. Laura’s own culinary history includes her studies at The Institute of Culinary Education in New York, as well as work for Emeril’s Restaurant, Hot and Hot, and The Food Network. They combine their knacks for Cajun and Southern cooking while keeping things admirably simple.

George McMillan III “I was raised in a family of good cooks,” says Chef McMillan. “I always enjoyed all the opportunities I had to get into the kitchen and help out.” McMillan’s interest in cooking intensified with age, prompting the Birmingham native to attend the culinary school at Jefferson State. After culinary school, McMillan joined several restaurants around Birmingham, including Arman’s and Hot and Hot, working with chefs Arman DeLorenz and Chris Hastings, respectively. He also co-founded Daniel George in Mountain Brook before moving on to his latest endeavor, FoodBar. The farm-to-table establishment opened in Vestavia Hills in 2013. McMillan works with nearby growers to provide the freshest offerings of each season. “I love the outdoors, and I love the idea of eating whatever you’ve harvested or caught,” he says. “That’s really the only way I’ve ever wanted to do it.”

photo graph by otmj/lee walls

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Mauricio Papapietro

A graduate of the University of the South in Sewanee, Chef Papapietro has worked with two of Alabama’s culinary catalysts, Frank Stitt and Chris Hastings. After immersing himself in the writing of great chefs and traveling to Italy for empirical culinary education, the imaginative chef was ready to launch his first restaurant by his early 30s. Papapietro opened Brick & Tin in downtown Birmingham in 2010, originally a lunch-only Italian-inspired bistro. “We wanted to bring fine dining together with accessibility,” he says. Papapietro prides himself on sourcing high-quality ingredients, bringing in vegetables, eggs, and meats from reliable producers around the state. Seeking to expand on what he started with the original Brick & Tin, Papapietro opened a second location in Mountain Brook in 2014.


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Benard Tamburello

It didn’t take long for Chef Tamburello to discover his love for cooking. In 1996, Tamburello opened Bernie’s Grill in Chelsea. He moved shop to Columbiana in 2001, opening Bernie’s on Main. In 2013, after refining his authentic Italian approach at La Dolce Vita and Bellini’s, Tamburello opened Veccia Pizzeria and Mercato in Hoover. The word “veccia” means “old,” in reference to tried-and-true techniques that haven’t changed since the 18th century. His dedication to the genuine Italian experience is rooted in his upbringing. “In an Italian family, we ate together.” he says. “That’s an experience I want to share with everybody. Every meal is more than nourishment. It brings people together.”

David Garfrerick

“I don't think ‘farm to table’ is a modern trend,” says Chef David Garfrerick. “It’s the way our ancestors lived. It’s natural and it’s not a fad that's going away.” At Garfrerick’s Café in Oxford, the farmer-turned-chef endeavors to show guests where their food comes from through fresh, seasonal dishes and innovative combinations. The offerings at Garfrerick’s Café have won the acclaim of The Alabama Tourism Department and our own reader’s choice for best café in 2014. In the early 1990s, he purchased a farm from which he provided produce to lauded restaurants like Highlands Bar and Grill, Hot and Hot Fish Club, and Satterfield’s. “Frank Stitt was an inspiration and a pioneer in Alabama who continues to bring it every day,” he says. The farmer’s deliveries to Hot and Hot led to a career-bolstering connection. “Chris Hastings was my most influential mentor,” he says. In 2008, Garfrerick opened his restaurant in Oxford featuring an open kitchen, allowing guests to watch their meal come together.

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Keith Richards

The idea began in 1997, when Richards and his wife, Amy, visited Greece. “After that trip, we knew that we wanted to bring that experience home.” In 1998, the couple made their dream a reality, opening the original Taziki’s in Birmingham, now a successful enterprise spanning nine states. Taziki’s balances Greek and Mediterranean influences with Southern tastes, emphasizing olive oil over butter, herbs over salt, and plenty of greens and vegetables to accompany the meat. And true to classic Greek cooking, Richards’s restaurants feature lamb accented with Mediterranean herbs. “That flavor was a staple in Greece,” he says. “It’s a great meal to enjoy with family and friends.”

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Bill Briand

Bill Briand has spent more than 20 years cooking with the bounty of Southern farmland. His work has earned him a James Beard nomination for Best Chef: South. Briand was introduced to cooking by his mother. “She has been my inspiration to continue this love through my career as a chef,” he says. Chef Briand has cooked in renowned restaurants around Louisiana, and spent nine years working for Emeril Lagasse. “Working there was my culinary school,” he says. “They taught me classic cooking styles." Following his time with Lagasse, Briand worked with Donald Link at Herbsaint, Cochon, and Butcher. There he learned the subtlety and balance of Southern cooking. “I learned the importance of layering different spices to make rich flavors in our food, not to make it spicy hot, but to give it a depth of flavor that is truly Cajun.” Working with Johnny Fisher, Briand brought his culinary ambition to Orange Beach with the waterfront restaurant Fisher’s. “Our guests come to Orange Beach to eat seafood, so seafood is the centerpiece of most of my dishes.”

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