Birmingham chef dishes up soul food with a twist at the Preservery

Birmingham chef dishes up soul food with a twist at the Preservery
The Preservery is based on the idea that each culture has its version of soul food, and sometimes they should meet on the same plate. (contributed)

When people eat at Andrea Foster’s new restaurant, she wants them to feel like it’s Thanksgiving at grandma’s house.

“One thing I always tell people is once you eat with us, you’re family,” said Foster. “I have put little hints of love, family and elegance into the restaurant. I want it to feel like a fancy dinner with Grandma.”

This weekend, Foster will debut her already-popular restaurant, the Preservery, in a prime spot in Birmingham’s Five Points South. She has been “wowing” crowds with her fine-dining soul food cuisine since the Preservery first opened at Pizitz Food Hall last year. Foster will welcome her guests to join her for dinner on Saturday evening or brunch on Sunday at her first brick-and-mortar restaurant, occupying space in the same 1920s-era building as celebrated eateries Highlands Bar and Grill and Chez Fonfon.

Foster, who serves Southern soul food with an international flair, said customers will see the dishes they have grown to love as well as many new ones on the menu. She is combining flavors from home and around the world through dishes like jambalaya fried rice and braised greens in wontons.

“Food is the great equalizer,” Foster said. “No matter what culture people are from, there’s a ‘feel-good’ dish they love. I always say they get that ‘slump on’ when they are eating something good.”

The Preservery keeps alive a family tradition of multicultural soul food from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Although she has been cooking for most of her life, Foster is a relative newcomer to the restaurant business. She is an alumnus of Create Birmingham’s Co.STARTERS  and a finalist in REV Birmingham’s entrepreneurial competition, the Big Pitch, and winner of its People’s Choice Award.

With that success, she was invited to become a chef in the REV Birmingham culinary incubator, Reveal Kitchen. As part of that program, she opened at the Pizitz last February, where she has been introducing her one-of-a-kind dishes to the city.

“While we were at Pizitz, the hardest part for me was trying to shove a fine-dining concept into a casual fast-food stall,” Foster said. “But even though we had to put our food into plastic to-go boxes, I wanted to make sure it was high-quality, good-tasting food that looks attractive. I always knew I wanted a fine-dining restaurant. But when the Reveal Kitchen opportunity came up, I had to take advantage of it.”

After eight months at the Pizitz, Foster was ready to step out on her own. “The Pizitz was a great place to get out in front of a lot of people daily instead of introducing my food at events,” she said.

Foster said her restaurant “pays homage” to her dad and grandmother, the two greatest influences in her life as a chef.

Foster grew up in California, the “melting pot” of the nation. There, she tried foods from around the world, thanks to her dad. He loved to cook, especially international dishes, and shared that passion with his daughter.

As a young girl, Foster said she was her dad’s “sous-chef.” It was her job to slice, dice and chop the ingredients.

“I always told my dad that when I retire, we would open a restaurant together,” said Foster. “Then, he passed away with cancer two years ago. It made me realize how mortal we are and how life can pass us by, so I decided not to wait.”

Foster’s dad introduced her to food from other cultures. But she learned the art of making the traditional Southern soul foods in her grandmother’s kitchen in Clanton.

Foster said one of her most treasured memories was learning to make preserves from her grandmother. It was those memories, along with the “soul food heritage” that her grandmother passed down to her, that inspired Foster to name her restaurant the Preservery.

“I’ve learned from everyone around me and the generations that have come before me,” Foster said. “I’m cooking the things I saw growing up, and putting my own spin on it.”

Foster said creating unique dishes comes naturally.

“My dad would take us to different international restaurants, and he would tell me to guess what was in the dishes,” Foster said. “I learned to recognize flavors. It has served me well because now I’m good at putting flavors together that people might not think go together.”

Foster is “preserving” her memories and family heritage through the décor and trimmings of her new 2,000-square-foot restaurant. It is decorated in navy, her dad’s favorite color. Foster also honors her dad, who spent his career in the U.S. Navy, with a nautical theme, including a central anchor in the logo and ship wheels in the chair backs.

The dishes will be served on elegant baroque-style china and crystal, similar to that used by Foster’s grandmother.

“It reminds me of when my grandmother would host a holiday dinner,” Foster said. “She would use an elegant hodgepodge of china and crystal. It may not all match, but it looked beautiful when she put it together.”

Foster said she is looking forward to opening day at the Preservery and welcoming old and new customers.

“I love all my customers,” Foster said. “It means a lot for me to remember them and build relationships, so when they come here, it will be like they are at their home table.”

To reserve a spot for this weekend’s opening, call 205-201-4147. Dinner is served on Saturday, July 20, from 5 to 9 p.m. brunch is Sunday, July 21, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

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