At the first Alabama rest stop on Interstate 20/59, just this side of Mississippi, visitors notice two things in the lobby. One is a colorful poster touting our state’s remarkable biodiversity: Alabama is America’s Amazon. The other is a large, canvas photo of world-renowned chef Frank Stitt standing in the dining room of one of his Birmingham restaurants, Chez Fonfon, presenting a perfect omelet.
Welcome to a state where food has become as important as the very land we live on.
And welcome to Food & Wine magazine, which is moving to the Time Inc. building in Birmingham. Of course, from a price-per-square-foot prospective the move from New York to Birmingham makes sound financial sense. Especially considering that Time Inc. recently built a huge, state-of-the-art facility in Birmingham with 28 test kitchens, 13 photo and video studios, and a showcase kitchen with a beautiful, expansive tasting room for demonstrations and events.
But the move makes sense in lots of other ways, too. The South has become enormously significant and is increasingly influential regarding American food. John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, writes in his new book, “The Potlikker Papers”: “Conversations about food have offered paths to grasp bigger truths about race and identity, gender and ethnicity, subjugation and creativity. Today, Southern food serves as an American lingua franca.”
“I think Birmingham has long defined itself as a media center, by way of Southern Living, has defined itself as a national leader in the shelter magazine and food magazine world,” Edge says. “The arrival of Food & Wine in Birmingham signals a moment of democratization for food media … in that a base in New York is no longer required to cover the dining scene. The American dining scene is vital in Birmingham, in Chicago, in San Francisco and Los Angeles. It’s vital across a broad swath of the nation.
“I hope this is the last time people wonder whether a national magazine should move South, can move South, and still be relevant,” he says. “I think that’s an old question that has little relevance now. Of course, they’re in Birmingham; it’s a smart move.”
Restaurateur Becky Satterfield also thinks Birmingham is a good fit for the national magazine. “There are so many smart people in this town working on food projects of one sort or another. There’s so much that supports this being a perfect place to have another magazine like Food & Wine.” Satterfield is committed to Birmingham’s food community; she’s the owner of Satterfield’s Restaurant and president of the Birmingham chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International (a philanthropic organization of women leaders in food, beverage and hospitality). Her newest venture, a Latin American restaurant called El ZunZún (Spanish for “the hummingbird” because the cuisine is based on locations along the migratory routes of these little birds), will open in early 2018.
“People don’t realize how much food-related business is going on here in every aspect,” Satterfield says, listing food-science efforts, new sustainable farming practices, healthy food education in schools, ongoing work to address hunger issues and even the nationwide interest in Southern culinary traditions.
“It’s not just restaurants,” she says.
Birmingham’s restaurants do get plenty of attention, though.
James Beard Foundation Award-winning chefs such as Chris Hastings with his Hot and Hot Fish Club and OvenBird and Stitt with Highlands Bar and Grill and Bottega have brought destination dining to Birmingham. Elsewhere, from one end of Alabama to the other, chefs including James Boyce (Cotton Row) in Huntsville, David Bancroft (Acre) in Auburn and Bill Briand (Fisher’s Upstairs) in Orange Beach are making national headlines regularly. Rob McDaniel, of SpringHouse in Alexander City, along with Timothy Hontzas (Johnny’s restaurant in Homewood), Bancroft and Briand all were semifinalists for 2017 James Beard awards. Highlands Bar and Grill and its pastry chef, Dolester Miles, were finalists – not for the first time, either. The Birmingham-based “Cooking Light” magazine brought home three James Beard media awards this year.
In fact, countless award-winning chefs; savvy, sophisticated diners; prominent food professionals; and accomplished home cooks call Alabama home, and many are influencing our country’s food scene in ways big and small.
Jessie Merlin, whose food blog “What to Eat in Birmingham” sees up to 30,000 visitors each month, says: “Birmingham has a very diverse food scene – all the Southern food that you would expect at a very high level from Frank Stitt and Chris Hastings and their protégés, but also a really strong, ethnically diverse food scene including Szechwan Chinese food and Nepalese food and Thai food as well as homegrown soul food. We have classically trained, talented world-famous chefs and home cooks who have had really strong success.”
The new Pizitz Food Hall, she points out, is one of the most ethnically diverse food halls in the country. “Birmingham, it seems to me, would be a welcoming place for Food & Wine. Birmingham has a long tradition of great food magazines and talented magazine staff, so I think (this move) follows nicely.”
Edge takes it a step further: “There have been many moments to peg the American culinary renaissance to, many years to peg it to, many chefs to peg it to and many restaurants to peg it to, but one of the signal moments in the American culinary renaissance was the opening of Highlands Bar and Grill in 1982.”
“That restaurant remains an important and vital and innovative American culinary citadel. If you imagine the clubhouse for Food & Wine magazine, it awaits the editors at Highlands,” he says. “That’s part of the scene. It’s part of the ethos of a great food magazine. The national food magazine wants for a canteen, and Highlands … a finalist for Best Restaurant in America this past year – that canteen awaits Food & Wine editors upon arrival.”