As we watch 2017 give way to 2018, it’s a good time to look back on some of the best things that happened in Alabama this year. Alabama NewsCenter has tallied the results in each grouping of stories to see which ones you responded to the most, and we’re sharing your five favorites along with a story (or stories) we wanted to make sure you didn’t miss.
Alabama’s culinary scene is brighter than it has ever been. There are established pros like Frank Stitt and Chris Hastings and rising stars like Brandon Cain at Birmingham’s Roots & Revelry, David Bancroft at Auburn’s Acre, Timothy Hontzas at Homewood’s Johnny’s, Rob McDaniel at Alexander City’s SpringHouse and Bill Briand at Fisher’s at Orange Beach Marina. Add to that restaurateurs like Harriet Reis and Paget Pizitz with a string of successful restaurants in Birmingham’s Avondale neighborhood and important figures like forager Tim Pfitzer, and the culinary infrastructure in this state is strong indeed.
Here are Alabama NewsCenter’s top chef and restaurant stories for 2017:
Chef Chris Hastings has always been known as an innovator and his latest initiative may be the most ambitious gamechanger to date. While cooking up some innovative dishes (sweet corn and blueberry ice cream, anyone?) for economic developers at their annual conference, Hastings introduced the idea of using food as an economic development tool in new and creative ways across all areas of Alabama.
One of the most exciting new additions to the downtown Birmingham culinary scene this year was Roots & Revelry restaurant. Chef and owner Brandon Cain has brought a fusion of the South and his family’s Hawaiian and Filipino roots to the newly renovated Thomas Jefferson Tower.
It started as a food truck venture between three friends. Now Melt is a full-service restaurant in a former gas station in the heart of Avondale – one of four new restaurants and bars launched by members of the trio. Restaurateurs Harriet Reis and Paget Pizitz and chef Joey Dickerson have spearheaded redevelopments in Avondale that added Fancy’s on 5th, an oyster dive and burger bar. Pizitz also owns Hot Diggity Dogs, home to some of the most inventive hot dogs in town, and The Marble Ring speakeasy with its time-travel 1920s vibe.
“Landmark” is a word that gets thrown around loosely these days and doesn’t always apply to the object of the word. That is not the case for Doc’s Seafood Shack in Orange Beach. The home of fresh, fried seafood platters and gumbo is indeed a landmark for beachgoers along the Alabama Gulf Coast.
Chefs prize fresh, local ingredients when they look to create their menus. The essentials they can pick up at the farmers market or meat purveyor are great, but the more exotic stuff is harder to find. Enter Tim Pfitzer, the Alabama forager who has a direct line to many of your favorite chefs and restaurants because of his ability to find morel mushrooms, watercress, ramps, oyster mushrooms and more growing wild in the state.
Perhaps the greatest sign of Alabama’s culinary cred is in its strong showing in the coveted James Beard Award nominations this year. Of course, perennial nominee Highlands Bar & Grill made the finals (but still no win) for the ninth straight year while Highland’s pastry chef Dolester Miles was up for Beard Outstanding Pastry Chef for the second straight year. But James Beard also singled out David Bancroft at Auburn’s Acre, Timothy Hontzas at Homewood’s Johnny’s, Rob McDaniel at Alexander City’s SpringHouse and Bill Briand at Fisher’s at Orange Beach Marina as semifinalists for “Best Chef: South.” Though none of them advanced to the finals, that’s quite a showing from chefs across Alabama.
Not all of Alabama’s rising culinary stars have their own restaurants. Brian Duffett, a culinary student at Jefferson State Community College, captured the gold medal in the National SkillsUSA culinary competition, earning him a $50,000 culinary scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America.