Today we welcome Carole Griffin, the artisan baker who brought us the Continental Bakery and Chez Lulu in English Village, along with the new downtown location. This passionate chef/baker, enamored by the flavors and spirit of French cafe society, has been serving up handmade, rustic, hearth-baked artisan breads and luscious pastries, as well as fresh, locally-sourced soups, salads and sandwiches for more than two decades. Combining a dash of quirky and a pinch of whimsy, Carole’s endeavors have turned out to be recipes for success! Welcome, Carole!
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Montgomery and grew up in the western section of Birmingham. I went away to college, thinking I might not want to return. I made the decision to come back when, on a visit home, I attended one of the early Southside Festivals. On that trip, I thought I saw Birmingham moving in a more forward-thinking, progressive direction, and I wanted to be part of developing that.
Is baking something you have always had a passion for?
I fell in love with baking the year I graduated from college. I was at Rice University, in the middle of acquiring a triple major in English, French and history. In my senior year, I was struck with the realization that I wanted to do something more tangible, more hands-on, less esoteric. I switched focus and set my sights on becoming a midwife. While I was applying for graduate school, I took a job as a night baker (a job I’ve come to see as having many similarities to midwifery). To my surprise, I adored baking, and the rest is history.
How did Continental Bakery and Chez Lulu come to be?
I was working with a newspaper in D.C., where I had landed after an adventurous trip to Europe. I used to meet a baker friend I had worked with in Texas for lunch every day, and we would commiserate about our tedious desk jobs. Eventually we hatched an escape plan — to return to my hometown and open a bakery. We saved our money, attended seminars at the Small Business Association and arrived in Birmingham a year later with a business plan and $9,000. My grandmother let us live with her while we chased down used equipment, tore out walls and renovated an old dress shop in Mountain Brook.
You recently opened a second location, right?
Yes, on the corner of Fourth Avenue North and 19th Street, in the new Theater District. We took over an existing business and completely renovated the interior. I’ve always wanted to have a presence downtown. All the beautiful cities I’ve visited, both overseas and domestic, have a vibrant city center. I wanted to be part of the revitalization of the city of Birmingham, especially as I had many fond childhood memories of the very neighborhood that now houses the Continental Bakery Downtown. My grandfather had an office in the old Lyric Office Building, next door to the Lyric Theater. I spent many afternoons sitting in the fourth-story window of his office, watching people or parades pass by below. I loved the Alabama Theatre, Loveman’s at Christmas, the old Woolworths. I used to daydream in school about feeding the pigeons. Downtown Birmingham is a magical part of my childhood. It’s fitting that it should be a wondrous part of my life now.
We love the unique decor in Chez Lulu. Where did you find inspiration?
Since we were in the Theater District, I decided to let that fact direct my creative impulses. But I also love objects that show the passage of time. I get excited by things that seem singular, particular, unique, unusual, personal — as opposed to mass-produced or cookie-cutter. I had moments of doubt, wondering how this process of simply bringing together things that I love, with a nod to the aesthetic of the Alabama and the Lyric theaters, would turn out. It was an act of faith to follow through with it, but it was a delight and pleasure, too. I followed my bliss, as they say, and it’s rewarding to know that people have responded to that.
Can you share a favorite baking memory or kitchen fiasco with us?
When I worked as a baker in Texas, I had a very impressive manager who was assertive, intuitive and confident. One morning after a long night of baking, one of my co-workers broke into tears. Her mother’s heirloom wedding ring had disappeared from her finger during the night, but she was just realizing it. All of us stood before a mountain of bread, hundreds of loaves that we had prepared over the course of the evening, knowing full well that one of them might contain her missing ring. The manager turned and looked at the teary-eyed gal who had lost the ring and turned decidedly back toward the stack of loaves. She pulled one from the top of the pile, and as we all prepared to follow suit and begin the long process of breaking open each loaf, the manager reached in and pulled the ring from the center of that first baguette.
What’s your favorite dessert?
A beautiful dish called Iles Flottant. It consists of a loose custard poured out onto a plate with islands of soft meringue floating on top. Otherwise, I’m a fool for chocolate and can never get enough of our Belgian Chocolate Espresso Pots de Creme at the cafe. Or our Flourless Chocolate Almond Tortelettes. Or our Belgian Chocolate Truffles!
Do you have a favorite kitchen utensil?
I love my wooden spoons. I have a couple made by my friend Pete Nice that are very pleasing to hold. The organic character of wood seems so much more fitting than metal for contact with food.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
I have a friend who says, “What you came here needing, you came here with.” I think in this society, where we’re encouraged sometimes to believe that what we have or what we are is insufficient, that we can relax and trust that we’re actually sitting in the midst of great abundance.
What advice would you give to others?
Move toward what you love and away from what you don’t.
What did your bedroom look like when you were a teenager?
I had red shag carpet, and all my furniture was painted black. I think I may have had a fake fur bedspread. It was the ’70s!
What is your favorite thing to do to relax?
I love a warm bath or a trip to the spa with a long massage.
What’s your favorite thing to do on a Saturday night?
I absolutely adore dancing salsa! Every Saturday night, I go out to a neighborhood salsa club and dance the night away. It is one of my greatest pleasures.
Do you have a favorite local restaurant?
What books are you reading?
A cookbook on Nicoise regional cooking.
Do you have any personality quirks or irrational fears?
I grew up with a real dread of spiders, but that’s gotten better over the years.
If your house was on fire what’s the one nonliving thing you would grab?
A box of old photos and journals from my childhood.
Name three things you can’t live without, excluding friends, family and faith.
Salsa dancing, clean food, creative outlets!
Thanks for sharing, Carole!
Thanks to Catherine Mayo for today’s fabulous photos: www.catherinemayo.com.