It has certainly been a great year for Hot & Hot Fish Club chef/owner Chris Hastings. Not only did Hastings get some attention for beating Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America but the Birmingham, Alabama chef also finally won a much-coveted James Beard Award for Best Chef: South. Those two events combined made his already-successful restaurant hotter than ever before.
Now, as the 2013 James Beard Awards loom in the very near future, Hastings looks back on the year that opened the floodgates for him. He also shares his plans for the future — which include opening a new casual restaurant in Birmingham — and his thoughts on how the rise of Southern cooking has influenced dining in Alabama and beyond.
I saw you're headed up to New York next week for a Southern seafood dinner at City Grit. Are you going to the James Beard Awards, too?
Well actually I'm not going to attend the awards. At that point I will have been in New York for almost a week, so I need to get back to things in Birmingham. And I've seen that awards ceremony quite a bit.
And it probably can't top last year's win.
You know, I'll tell you, that was a really big deal for us and something that I've worked awful hard at. Thrilled to kind of have it behind me, quite frankly. After 18 years of aspiring to that goal, to finally win it is such a personal accomplishment, but also a huge relief. I'm going to miss it this year.
What has this past year been like for you since winning the Beard?
Last year was an interesting year not only for the Beard Awards, but we were on Iron Chef against [Bobby] Flay and won, so you have two really important culinary events that a wide range of people see. The Beard Award, of course, is super important for all of us in the industry. And the Iron Chef win was big because people who enjoy the Food Network may not necessarily know about the Beard Awards. So I couldn't hardly go anywhere without somebody either mentioning, "Wow, congratulations on stomping Bobby Flay" or "Great job on the Beard Awards."
In terms of business, of course, the floodgates opened. People wanted to see what the latest Beard Award is doing in the kitchen. Chefs travel from all around the country to swing through and eat. It was a really exciting year. We really pushed hard to meet everyone's expectations. We realized that if we would allow it, more people would come in than we could handle efficiently. So we said, "Look, let's just do a comfortable number, as many people as we can do at the very best we can do it because this is too important of a moment to have 20 more people than we can bear." So we were very methodical about how many people could we do within a period of time. It allowed the kitchen to be super efficient and allowed everyone to come away with a Beard-winning experience.
So we kept it very controlled and had a great year, had a lot of fun. Saw more people than ever and more people were excited to be with us. It was really neat. And of course there's a great sense of pride the community has to have another James Beard Award winner. So there was just a great deal of outpouring of excitement for us and pride for our community generally. I'm happy to be carrying that water for Birmingham. It's been just a tremendous year. I must say, it's been awesome.
At what point did you realize you needed to tamp down on the doors?
The first week. So Monday is the Beard Awards, Tuesday the phone is ringing off the hook. We've been around 18 years, so it's not like we have not done this dance before. We have been very consistently busy for a very, very long time. But this is a game-changer. Our restaurant is relatively small. We've got 80 seats and we're not a turn-it-and-burn-it place. We're a fine dining restaurant. We could have done north of 200 every single night for a year. The first week the floodgates open and we thought, okay, bring 'em on in. Let's do it. Pack 'em, stack 'em and rack 'em. After the end of that first week, I said, you know, that was just a few too many. Let's find our natural sweet spot and let's stay there and do the best work we can do and let's make 100 percent of the people happy and not 95 percent of the people happy.
So what's the number that you settled on?
180 was the maximum. Things have calmed down so it's not 180 covers every single day a year later. But we've maintained a good steady pace.
I think it's so interesting what you said about getting the two sides of diners too, those that follow the Beards and those that follow food TV.
What I've found too is a lot of young people follow [food TV]. College kids might not necessarily know about the Beard Awards, but are totally into the Food Network. The young generation particularly always mentions the Iron Chef win. Young people generally are really into food. I will say my generation was not so dialed in at such a young age. High school and college kids are really into food. They're into where their food is sourced from and the health of the food that they eat. They enjoy dining out. I think dining out as a social activity is more part of their culture than it was, say, when I was in college. It was more of a special occasion kind of culture.
And I hear you're looking to expand this year. What's the plan?
As a matter of fact, I just got an email from my real estate guy who met with a potential landlord, we had a proposal we wanted to give them for a space. Like I said, we're a fine dining restaurant and one of the things that is happening in the world more generally is that diners are looking for more options to eat out more often, but they need to do it in a way that they can afford. So casual dining is more popular than ever. The younger generation grew up eating out and they'd like to do it more often, whether it's business or just hanging with their friends.
So we wanted to bring our brand out into the casual dining and create a fun, energetic space that you can get really high quality, delicious food that's probably in the $30 range all in. No reservations, just really fun casual place, really great mixology program. Of course, we'll always do farm-to-table because that's who we are, and reflecting the heroes of the purveying world for us is always a part of our menu and our thinking and our cooking. So I'm looking forward to it. After 18 years of doing just Hot & Hot and some consulting projects, it's really exciting to go through the process of thinking through and developing what you want to do in a second restaurant. So we're excited. Hopefully it will be this year. It depends on if I can get this deal done or not.
Is it in Birmingham?
It's in Birmingham. That's correct.
Had you considered expanding before?
People approach us all the time. There's not a couple of months that doesn't go by where a developer somewhere calls, "Oh yeah man, we've got the best space ever. Come check it out. You're going to love it. It's a great deal." It always turns out that the spaces we look at just haven't really gotten our attention. And partly because we really just weren't looking. We're not the type of business people that just because somebody calls you and says, 'Oh, we've got a great space" — and maybe it is a pretty cool space — that we're just going to go do something. We're pretty methodical. We like to think things through and organize our thoughts. We have to be ready for it, not because the phone rang.
We're definitely in a place where we're ready to expand versus people calling us. Birmingham is a small town, a little over a million people. There are different neighborhoods and things that are either coming on or are really vibrant. So we're trying to examine which of the neighborhoods we really would like to be in. Again, for a casual no-reservation kind of place. We're working on all that now.
How has the dining scene changed in Birmingham, especially with the more recent focus on Southern cooking?
Birmingham is an interesting town. It's a fairly mature food town. You think about when Frank Stitt opened the Highlands Bar, I think it was 1982. That was kind of like Birmingham's nuclear fusion moment where all of a sudden food happened. Before then it was the country clubs and not a very vibrant contemporary American food scene. Well once Frank started that moment, 30 years later lots of people have graduated from his and mine and other kitchens and created all kinds of other businesses from the food truck scene to other fine dining restaurants to fast-casual to cool little lunch spots.
Our farmers' market has been around now for, gosh, 15 years, maybe longer. We have a great, amazing network of local purveyors. We've also got school systems that are very interested in edible schoolyard programs and working to get the chef community involved in training cafeteria workers and working with city school systems to develop a better cafeteria program. There's just a lot of interesting cool stuff going on.
You're right, Southern food has been very popular here recently. There's a lot of amazing Southern chefs out there doing incredible work, and Birmingham is certainly benefiting from some of that energy. As a matter of fact, I'm going to do a dinner in June with all the former sous chefs from my kitchen. It's going to be 10 of us doing a meal at the restaurant. We're going to have Raj Parr come in and be our somm for the night from RN-74 and the Michael Mina group. These guys all either own their own restaurants or are running really great kitchens. Everyone thinks, "Birmingham, give me a break, what the hell is going on in Birmingham?" But Birmingham actually has a lot of fun, cool things going on. We love it.
And what do you think about how Southern cooking is influencing what's going on everywhere else in the country?
It's really important. I think that people up until recently have kind of looked at Southern cuisine as one-dimensional. The reality of Southern food is it's an amazing tapestry of cultures. There are so many different iterations of Southern cuisine, whether you're looking at the Low Country or what goes on the Carolinas, Louisiana or different parts of the panhandle of Florida or Texas or Mississippi. There's these regions within a region that's generally viewed as under, like I said, a kind of whitewash. It's very interesting and diverse and people are now beginning to see Southern food in a way that they never have looked at it before, which is the way it really exists in the world: diverse and interesting and dynamic.
Also, one of the things I think Southern chefs have been doing generally better than most is the farm-to-table movement, which people for whatever reason lately have kind of bemoaned as a fad. What I would say about that is down south, we are an agrarian society. Farming and sourcing and eating of our place has always been what we do here. So farm-to-table and sourcing things that are of our culture and expressing them in interesting, new fun ways is something that we've always done. It's just part of who we are.
I'm just thrilled that people are finally looking at Southern cuisine, the culture that we have here, and our food scene and go wow, it really is interesting. It's some of the best food. And really America's true cuisine. It's been around for a long time. It's interesting how people are now beginning to find it legitimate. I think it's great.