The banchan assault is on! Birmingham, Alabama chef Chris Hastings has joined me at one of my favorite Koreatown lunch spots, Miss Korea, on 32nd Street in New York City. Plates start to drop on the table before we can shake hands — it’s a collage of cold boiled bean sprouts, dried anchovies and sautéed fern shoots. Two types of kimchi and a couple chilled OBs land in unison and I flip on my recorder.
I’ve summoned Hastings to meet me for a late lunch to talk about his life running one of the top restaurants in the entire South, Hot & Hot Fish Club, a 17-year collaboration with his wife Idie that has slowly but surely shifted the perception of Southern cuisine across the globe — away from fried bird and buttery biscuits to a more refined farm– and fisherman-driven fare. In May, the James Beard Foundation took note and awarded him with the highly competitive Best Chef South medal. I truthfully had little idea about all of this before I briefly met Hastings at the Beard Awards. Birmingham isn’t really on my way home from work.
“We arrived to a whole new world,” he says over the din of sizzling short rib. “Monday, you get an award. Tuesday, what for 17 years has been a very successful restaurant, doubles its volume almost instantaneously.” As I found out during our talk, this spike in business, though much deserved, is just about the only aspect of Hastings’ long career that came overnight.
Do you eat Korean food often?
I love Korean food and we don’t have any of this in Birmingham. If I want to find great Korean, I’ve got to go to Atlanta, New York and so on. But Birmingham is finally starting to get some more ethnicity to its food scene. There’s a really great Mainland Chinese restaurant called Red Pearl inside this oriental market. You go in there and it’s a classic market with everything under the sun available, from a fake samurai sword to a cute little Pokémon purse to frogs and soft-shell turtles. It’s the only place you can get fresh blood in Birmingham! That’s where I get my fresh blood, and it’s ridiculously good.
What do you make with the blood?
Mostly blood sauces. I should be a little more adventurous and do blood puddings and such, but I haven’t yet.
So what does Birmingham need?
More Indian places, Thai places, any Korean places would be fantastic. We need more ethnic cuisines. What we don’t need more of are trendy little spots that are “the burger or fried chicken joints of the moment.” For a while, everybody was opening Flip Burger knockoffs. I’d rather ethnic places or independent restaurants open that do cool foods.
You’re a spokesperson for the Alabama Seafood Commission. How have things been going since the oil spill?
Since the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, the Alabama seafood industry has been hit pretty hard. The perception is “Oh my God, I can’t eat any of that because it’s covered in oil” or “there are fish washing up with three eyeballs.” And of course, that’s a whole bunch of bullshit. There is actually a lot of good science out there that shows it’s the best seafood destination in the world right now, and that the testing of the water away from the site is very good.
The Gulf has a unique ability to heal itself in a natural way because of its self-regulating ecosystem that has this bacteria that eats the naturally occurring oil coming up from the seabed. It has a long way to go to eat all the oil up, but because of the temperature and where it has settled in the Gulf, it’s not getting blasted around and it’s very contained, which is nice. Right now, we serve Gulf seafood every night in our restaurant: Soft shell crab, clams, oysters, shrimp.
You’ve been doing that for a while now…
For 17 years without stopping. I did my homework: I spoke to every fisherman I knew from Texas to Florida and spoke to them about their water conditions, what they are seeing, what is in their nets.
When did you know you wanted to work in the food world?
I grew up in a food-friendly family that was always at the table and in the kitchen. I did a lot of hunting and fishing, but had nothing to do with being a chef. It was an important and good part of my life, though. My mother died when I was 18, and I decided to take a gap year before heading to Appalachian State and stay in the restaurant I was working at because I loved the people. I began to move out of the front of the house and into the kitchen as a new chef from Binghamton, New York came in – he was a graduate of Johnson & Wales. He took me under his wing and we worked together everyday.
Work became a real solace for me, and I was able to forget what was on that other side of that door and get through the grieving period. At the end of that year, I had to make a decision about going to school or continuing to work. I had been thinking of culinary school, and he wrote me a letter for his school, Johnson & Wales. I said, “Fine, I’m out of here!” I took a flyer! I had been a prep cook for a year, and wasn’t feeling four years of traditional college. I liked the chef business and got it instinctively – food was personal and real. I didn’t really know if I was going to become a chef, but I just went to culinary school.
Right. A lot of people who go to culinary school do not end up becoming chefs.
Absolutely. It opens up a lot of different possibilities.
Take me back to your first day at Johnson & Wales.
The dorm was about 20 miles away from the campus in Warwick, Rhode Island. If you know anything about Warwick, it’s a rough ass place. I was a Southern boy up there in a very Northern, rough and tumble environment. The school was cool – structure, uniforms, classes. It was a good place for me to be to focus. The campus was tiny at that time, maybe two buildings. I immersed myself in it. The culture was different, which was great.
Because here you are from North Carolina…
I was from Charlotte and everybody there was from Jersey. But I was close to the water. I could get to Newport and dive for lobsters and cliff dive and fish.
You and your wife are business partners, right?
Yes, for 17 years.
What is her role in the restaurant?
She went to culinary school to be a pastry chef, but the reality is if you own a business together, you have to divide and conquer. She handles all the back of the house office business, all the money, fielding all of the PR calls for the company. She also runs the front of the house. She has also stayed involved in discussions about the pastry aspects of the restaurant. The kitchen is me, though, and she is in the front and the office functions.
Do you work the line?
Not as much as I used to. I’m probably better at being at the pass. For many years I was at the expediter station, and either cooked or expedited. It eventually made more sense to be at the pass – seeing, touching everything.
I figure it made more sense after a while.
Oh, yeah. I’m too fucking old for that.
Do you keep a staff that has been with you for a while?
We don’t keep anybody more than two years. That’s a long stay – we push people hard, make changes to the menu everyday, we have strict processes and ways we do things.
So you are tough in the kitchen?
Not as tough as I used to be. I learned to be tough on the guy who is on the top of the food chain and not on the bottom. I used to be tough on everybody. In an open kitchen, if somebody was having a bad night, I’d tell them to take their food, dump it in the garbage, get off the line, stand there and watch me. That kind of a jackass. That was the young Chris Hastings. My wife let me know I had to mellow and chill out because I was being an asshole, and no one was going to work for me if I kept going down that road.
How long ago was this?
15 years ago. It was pretty early on. I was 35 years old and had been busting people’s balls for about 10 years. I’ve seen pans and knives flying. I’ve even seen chefs physically hit cooks. This is all back in the day…
Southern restaurants are opening up all over the place in the North. In places like California. Is anyone getting it right? Have you checked it out?
I have not. I just haven’t been there, though I hear about them and my instinct is this: you can channel your inner Southern and understand it instinctively, but you must have lived it to some extent. And most importantly, have access to some of those products.
Which is very difficult when you’re in New York.
It is. To get proper cornmeal, proper sorghum, moonshine, and on and on.
What do you think you’ll be doing 10 years from now?
I will definitely have one or more other restaurants. The reason we haven’t done [another] restaurant up until this point is that we made a decision when our children were born that we were going to focus on them until they got to college. We said, let’s have one restaurant that is open Tuesday – Saturday for dinner only. Let’s afford ourselves two days off per week to coach baseball, basketball, teach my children how to cast a fly rod, hunt turkeys, travel and have a life! We said we would do that until college. Once they are in college, we said we’d begin thinking about other things. Fortunately for us, we’ve had a great 17 years, the kids are now in college, and we’re beginning to entertain this whole idea.
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