Above: The large oven at OvenBird is the restaurant’s centerpiece. (contributed)
Every inspiring and interesting place tells a story that usually takes decades to craft. That’s why OvenBird, the latest from chef Chris Hastings is so interesting. The restaurant may be new, but its story has been written the chef’s entire life.
“OvenBird is about connectivity,” Hastings said. “How all things tie back.”
Acclaimed before it even opened, Hastings knew his newest venture had to be special – a new experience. And, a restaurant using only live fire cooking with no gas line had to have a special name. Hastings and his wife, Idie, were struggling with that name. They put down multiple options only to strike through them time and again. Then, when dining in a favorite Spanish restaurant in New York, the Chef had a revelation.
“I realized I had to go with what I know,” Hastings said. “I know the oceans. I know the land and flora and fauna. We hunt birds. We forage. We build fires and we cook. Outside is where I go to escape.”
The Hastings family also loves to travel and to Argentina in particular. “We’ve taken our kids and explored the rural regions and the cities [of Argentina],” he continued. “Argentines have a close relationship and rhythm with the land. They love it and appreciate it.”
So, Hastings “Googled” the national bird of Argentina and there it was – rufous hornero or OvenBird. They knew they had it.
“The name OvenBird has it all,” he said. “Oven for fire, for cooking, for what we do here. Bird is one of the things we cook. It’s authentic. It’s real.”
Hastings calls everything at OvenBird “perfectly harmonious.” The design of the restaurant and the food coming from its ovens blend five elements – fire, wood, iron, stone and the land – to create this perfect harmony.
Fire is visible throughout the restaurant. Upon entering, you are struck by an oven with its cast iron hearth facing the door.
“This oven’s shape pays homage to the original bee hive ovens at Sloss Furnaces,” Hastings said. That’s appropriate because part of Hastings’ team is Cathy Sloss Jones – the developer of Pepper Place where the restaurant is located. Her great-great grandfather founded Sloss Furnaces in 1881 where pig iron was produced and used widely by cast-iron cookware manufacturers for many years. Sloss Real Estate has also been instrumental in the development of Birmingham for more than a century.
The second oven – just around the corner from the entrance – is an original creation that came from the award-winning chef’s mind. It was designed and built in collaboration with architect Alex Krumdieck, also a Pepper Place tenant who designed the restaurant, and local metallurgist Jeremy Roegner of Artistic Birmingham Iron, who designed every joint and lock detail.
“There’s no other unit like it anywhere in the world,” Hastings said. “We have to produce a lot of food every day. We must understand how to build a fire and cook. The wood dictates how we cook. Wood gives us an opportunity to explore and test us as a cook. We couldn’t do it without this oven.”
Rather than a single oven, it’s actually a large array of ovens that cover an entire wall in a small dining room next to the main dining room. The completely custom design features a cast iron box to cook and keep food warm, a spit to roast all day and capability to roast in ash for exploration and ridiculous flavor. Hastings also wanted to introduce a traditional Argentine cooking method so the design had to accommodate an Argentine cross – a tool used to stretch meat vertically to slow cook over a fire.
Like the custom wall of ovens, OvenBird is original in its use of wood. The wood specified by Krumdieck for the architecture is reclaimed and sourced through Cullman-based Garlan Gudger of Southern Accents Architectural Antiques. But, it’s the way wood is used in the cooking that’s so innovative.
“We are experimenting with woods,” Hastings said. “Learning which wood is best for which use. We are just at the front end of this journey and exploration. I don’t know anywhere else using wood to this extent.”
The staff is trying pecan, hickory, oak, alder and other species to see how one wood might perform over another for different techniques and flavors. This exploration and commitment to using wood as a fuel source puts OvenBird in a category its own – part restaurant, part laboratory.
Steel and iron are also critical to cooking and have been instrumental to Birmingham’s economy from its earliest days.
“I’ve cooked on iron my whole life. Iron is very, very real and honest,” Hastings says.
In addition to being used in the main ovens and found in cooking equipment, Krumdieck and Idie Hastings, with the help of Cindy Barr of Chelsea Antique Mall, specified iron throughout the restaurant’s interior. Iron brackets hold reclaimed wood shelves laden with elixirs for the restaurant’s cocktail creations. The bar front is clad in riveted panels and the main sign out front combines both iron and wood to tie it all together.
And stone? For cooking, it absorbs and contains heat very well, but stone appears in the design in the form of custom white marble tabletops and bar counters handcrafted by local mason, Kip Simmons.
The land is the most essential element at OvenBird. “It’s the story of who I am and who we are,” said Hastings. The land is also the story of Argentina and the American South. It is from the land where food comes, where traditions begin and where cultures are shaped.
For this reason, OvenBird could not be a restaurant without a relation to the land and the environment around it. As one might imagine, food is locally sourced, grown and harvested coming from hundreds of regional vendors. But, the entire OvenBird complex is integrated into the environment around it.
There’s no formal entry. You arrive at a courtyard designed by Charlie Thigpen filled with found antiques, contemporary dining tables, plants, pots, benches and fountains, all from the adjacent Charlie Thigpen’s Garden Gallery.
But, perhaps the most visible expression of the land is found on the menu. Hastings, long known for his creative combinations and fabulous flavors crafted from what’s in season, has created a menu divided in logical categories: Farm + Fields, Land + Air, Oceans + Estuaries, and Orchards and Dairies. It’s designed to tease the senses and allow patrons to pick, share and savor a wider range of OvenBird’s fare – much of which is adapted from centuries-old South American, Spanish and Portuguese cooking techniques.
“After two years of really hard work, the most rewarding thing for me is to have our team come together and for the public to come out and say ‘wow,’” Hastings said.
The chef readily credits the people who have made OvenBird possible. “Most everything here was designed or crafted by someone local,” Hastings said. “We are very fortunate in Birmingham where craftsmanship can be a part of the overall mission and vision of a place.”
In the end, Hastings added another element integral to the success of OvenBird: Energy. “I used to come here (Pepper Place) before we even knew that we would put a restaurant here,” he remembers. “This place has a field of energy that is just a part of everything coming together.”
OvenBird; (205) 957-6686 (no reservations); 2830 Third Avenue South, Birmingham 35233; Open for dinner: Monday through Saturday, 4:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Open for lunch: Saturdays 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. during Pepper Place Farmer’s Market.