Rooted in its loyalty to local farmers, Birmingham’s food scene is garnering national attention. Zagat tips its hat to the epicurean haven as No. 1 on its list of Next Hot Food Cities. Chefs across the city embrace the farm-to-table philosophy because fresh, local, heirloom vegetables and heritage meats yield more complex and intriguing flavors.
Legendary Birmingham chefs Frank Stitt and Chris Hastings pioneered the city’s locavore culture, opening their kitchens to “brown baggers,” local farmers with brown paper bags of ripe tomatoes or delicate pea tendrils. The chefs then craft daily menus that place these locally sourced ingredients in the limelight, putting farmers’ names on the menu. Today, throngs of locals stroll Pepper Place Farmers Market each Saturday because they know that the farmers from the menus will be there.
Bettola Chef de Cuisine Drew Terp, formerly of Auberge du Soleil in Napa Valley, CA, advises the aspiring home locavore to go to the farmers market early – 7 a.m. – and talk to the farmers about their wares and how they’re preparing them. Buy a new, tasty-looking vegetable and find an inventive online recipe that elevates that ingredient. “When you hold a perfectly ripe heirloom tomato up to your nose,” says Terp, “eventually it tells you what to do.”
Let’s take a look at five noteworthy farm-to-table eateries.
2901 Second Ave. S., Birmingham • (205) 731-6499
Talk to the farmers at Pepper Place Market about their loyal restaurant clients, and the common thread is Executive Chef James Lewis of Bettola. Local foragers recently brought wild mushrooms to the rustic bistro at Pepper Place, which inspired Chef de Cuisine Drew Terp to create the Wild Mushroom Risotto.
“The most exciting thing a forager has brought in was the morel crop last year,” says Terp of Birmingham’s singular foraging culture. “They had morels the size of my hand! Firm and tender, the pungent richness of morel exuding from each structured pore – gives me goose bumps just thinking about it.”
Bettola highlights farm-fresh flavors in their wood-fired Neapolitan pizzas and house-made pastas and atop charcuterie platters.
2901 Cahaba Road, Birmingham • (205) 297-8636
“The farmers are friends of mine. They call and tell me what they’re planting and what’s ready for picking,” says Brick & Tin Executive Chef Mauricio Papapietro. “Trent Boyd (of Harvest Farms), for example, just started growing Romanesco cauliflower this year because we asked him to. It’s one of the most rewarding relationships a chef can have, talking to a person who will actually go out in the field and grow and pick the crops themselves.”
With its first restaurant serving the downtown lunch crowd, Brick & Tin opened its second storefront in Mountain Brook with a menu that leans more toward the haute cuisine of Highlands Bar and Grill, where Papapietro honed his craft. However, as diners requested more casual dishes, he acquiesced, giving his customers the simplified menu they craved, doing so with exquisite execution and the freshest ingredients. A casual bistro, Papapietro’s 15-item lunch and dinner menu has farm-to-table integrity and crowd-pleasing staying power.
113 20th St. N., Birmingham • (205) 322-1282
Before foraged foods were trending in cutting-edge kitchens across America, Executive Chef Chris Dupont was foraging for watercress to prepare with dishes for his Springville, AL, restaurant 20 years ago. Chef of downtown Birmingham’s premier white-tablecloth restaurant, Dupont is excited about co-ops like the Urban Food Project and Alabama Organics, because they offer fledgling farmers the support they need to grow a flourishing farm operation and make it onto local menus.
Dupont says his house-made malfatti, gnocchi-like morsels incorporating ricotta and local Swiss chard, wouldn’t have their sophisticated and surprising flavor without the rich natural eggs from a young preacher who recently decided to try his hand at chicken farming. He also cites Terra Preta Farms and Petals from the Past, both specializing in heirloom vegetables, fruits and flowers, as the superstars of the local movement.
3156 Heights Village • (205) 876-8100
Executive chef of the elegant and casual Vestavia eatery FoodBar, George McMillan comes from a farming family. “If I wasn’t putting the farmers’ food on the table,” he says, “I would be out there running my own farm.” And he is continually inspired by the way familiar local flavors can express themselves in surprising new ways. For example, McMillan created a beautifully balanced Sautéed Gulf Red Snapper dish which originally featured French Haricot Verts. But upon tasting Snow’s Bend Farms’ fresh pea tendrils, he was moved to reinvent his dish. “The pea tendrils brought a pop of color, crisp texture and subtle, sweet floral aroma,” he says.
2713 Culver Road, Mountain Brook • (205) 769-6034
This neighborhood gastropub in Mountain Brook Village evokes both modernity in its forward-thinking, cross-cultural dishes and a return to the front porches of a sepia-toned era when farm-fresh food was king. “It’s an idea as old as the hills that has resurfaced,” says Anna Newsome, wife of Executive Chef Chris Newsome. “A farm-to-table mentality means we are taking part in healthy relationships with the seasons, our bodies and our communities.”
One dish that fully exemplifies this farm-to-fork philosophy is their 20-mile Salad, which incorporates the summertime ingredients of the South – all from within 20 miles of the restaurant – heirloom tomatoes, corn, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes and lots of herbs. “It’s picked and delivered the day we make it, and it’s easy, fresh and delicious,” says Anna Newsome, adding, “How could it not be?”
Visit our local farmers on their farms or peruse their wares at Pepper Place Farmers Market, attend a Chef in the Garden supper or follow your farmers’ Instagram feeds to see gobsmackingly gorgeous produce make it from field to fork.
Keep up with other fantastic food finds on the SB Birmingham Instagram feed. Find it here.