Carey Thomasson, Chef and Owner of DINNER., might not have attended culinary school or be seeking accolades from the James Beard Foundation but her food has that “something special,” the subtle, secret ingredients that make her homemade recipes like the ones only our mothers or grandmothers can make. And that’s just one more thing this self-made chef has in common with your dinner table: She knows dinnertime like the back of her hand. Not only is she a working mom, but families from California to New York City to our very own Heart of Dixie have been hiring Carey to make dinner for them for about 30 years. This dinner perfectionist is driven and kept up at night by her artistic outlet and creative passion: making creative yet simple dinners.
“I just love good food. I love simple food prepared well,” says Carey. “That’s kind of my thing. I’m not really into big, heavy sauces. I mean, I love to go out to fancy restaurants but that’s not realistic eating. I want people to be able to have really healthy, simple, good food that’s made fresh every day.”
The Greenwich, Connecticut, native was hired at age 15 to cook dinners for a wealthy older woman who was busy taking care of her sick husband. Carey’s mother drove the budding personal chef to the grocery store and to her job. Before long, Carey was cooking for three families every night at the age of 17. She cooked her way through college and when she moved to New York City to pursue acting, cooking sustained her in the big city. When she subsequently moved to Los Angeles, cooking again remained a constant, allowing her creativity and talents to flourish. She’d even been dreaming up her vision of the perfect personal-chef-meets-dinner-eatery all along.
“This restaurant has been in my head for about 30 years,” says Carey. When she moved to her husband’s hometown of Mountain Brook and was cooking dinner for a few clients, her friends would always say, “I wish you would make me dinner!” So about a year ago, she thought, Everybody wants me to make them dinner, so let’s go ahead and make them dinner!
“We were at Sloss Fest,” Carey recalls of the moment that she decided to make her longtime vision a reality. “And I said to my husband, ‘You know what we’re going to do? We’re going to open up a take-out restaurant and call it DINNER., and ‘We made it for you.’ is going to be the tag line.” And a year later, in the heart of Crestline Village, Carey and her husband, Dan, opened the doors of their sleek, airy to-go establishment of that very name.
The concept of DINNER. is seasonal, simple, fresh and, as Carey describes it, “something for everyone.” Carey has an intimate understanding of aggressive allergies, so she is adamant that the restaurant remain completely nut-free and shellfish-free with tons of gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian options. Everything is served in packages of two servings, so that if Mom and Dad want steak and the kids want fried chicken, you’ve got the flexibility to mix and match. Likewise, sides are offered a la carte, so you can choose what you’d like to pair with your main protein.
“When you get home from your day and you’re tired, the last thing you want to do is cook a meal. And going out to a restaurant every night gets boring,” says Carey, who clearly understands the dinnertime struggle. “And taking food home from a restaurant is not the greatest. The food loses something.” So, Carey and her staff take care in preparing the food with reheating in mind, so that when you take your chicken home and put it in the oven for 10 minutes, it tastes just like it came out of the oven for the first time.
Three more major bonuses: 1) All of the containers are oven- and microwave-safe, and 2) there’s no clean up, because all of the containers are made from bamboo, sugarcane and corn, which means 3) they are completely disposable and compostable. “The plastic containers are made from corn, so once they are thrown away, they are on Earth for four days — and then they are just gone,” says Carey. “That was a lot of research but it paid off. I love knowing that we are not contributing to the massive amounts of landfill.”
For lunch, the chicken salad and quinoa salad play a close second in popularity to the gazpacho, of which Carey says they can’t make enough. She recommends topping the arugula salad, shaved Parmesan, shaved zucchini and lemon vinaigrette with the grilled chicken for a tasty lunch. And for dinner, the flank steak and Parmesan-crusted chicken are the stars of the show, followed closely by the turkey meatloaf, grilled salmon and pappardelle pomodoro. Creek’s Carrots are a fave as well — cooked carrots tossed in a dressing of olive oil, red wine vinegar, cumin, paprika, fresh parsley, garlic, salt and pepper.
Among Carey’s proudest achievements is the fact that parents are constantly telling her that their kids will eat her vegetables. “People go nuts for the broccoli. There’s always little kids saying, ‘Ms. Carey, I love your broccoli,’” says Carey. “It’s just steamed broccoli with red pepper flakes, garlic and olive oil, heated up. Kids love it!” Kids also, of course, love the mac ‘n’ cheese but it is made with shallots and white wine, so parents love it, too.
And if you want to grab an after-dinner treat, Carey has homemade cookies, Rice Krispie treats and brownies on hand, or you can grab a few of her homemade blueberry muffins for the next morning. They are made with a lot of lemon zest and blueberries. Pop them in the oven for two minutes and you’re good to go!
DINNER. is very big on catering — from corporate luncheons and parties to small meetings and get-togethers. “It’s so cute,” says Carey. “We pack it in our little boxes and people love it. Each person can personalize the lunch of their choice or we can deliver it in big catering sizes.” And Carey is delighted to see that her eatery is inspiring locals to host dinner parties. “People are coming in and telling me that they can finally break out the china because they don’t have to do anything, and I love that,” says Carey. Just bring home the containers, put it on a platter, and you’re ready to be “hostess with the most-est!”
One of her favorite things about DINNER. — aside from creating food she’s passionate about and making dinners easier for people — is the location. “I love this neighborhood. Everybody on the strip is like family. They’re all such good people,” says Carey. “Everyone I’ve ever known comes in here and I’ve made a lot of new friends too! It’s so fun!”
Carey’s plans for the restaurant haven’t even fully come to fruition, yet. She envisions pop-up dinners at the large table in the clean, white space, as well as launching holiday specials and making cakes, Thanksgiving sides, dressings and sauces — even bottling one of her most in-demand vinaigrettes!
But the ever-humble Carey downplays her success thus far, citing her own need for an establishment like DINNER. “I always said if we just had this shop, it would be so much easier because I wouldn’t have to cook dinner every night,” she says. “It’s just an absolute dream come true and it’s so great to work with Dan. We have such a great time together. We get to be creative and make all this great food but also be with our family. It really worked out perfectly.”
DINNER. is located in Crestline Village at 73 Church St., Mountain Brook, AL 35213. Hours are Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; closed Sundays. To learn more, call (205) 637-3007 or visit DINNER.
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