It is a happy coincidence that on the week that Birmingham’s Highlands Bar and Grill won the James Beard Award as Outstanding Restaurant in America, the Spring Harvest Dinner at the Alabama Chanin Factory Café in Florence (www.alabamachanin.com) featured local ingredients with a French twist, a combination on which Highlands’ reputation was built.
It was never my intention for this journal to become a food site but I realize that an abundance of the 150 essays so far has focused on food. And many of those food-focused essays are inspired by the series of transcendent meals served in Florence at the Friends of the Café series and related events.
The search for knowledge of foodways and the understanding of what it means to be “at table” have been a source of pleasure and release for me in recent years. It has filled a need both for roots and better understanding of culture through food. And the Factory dinners are a huge influence. Many of them have benefited Southern Foodways Alliance and almost all of them featured James Beard Award winners.
Here’s a particularly telling example: In 2016, I attended a Friends of the Café dinner which featured a whole hog prepared by Rodney Scott, the 2018 James Beard Award winner for Best Chef: Southeast. The other dishes for the event were prepared under the leadership of Chef Frank Stitt, owner and executive chef of Highlands Bar and Grill, the 2018 James Beard Award winner for Outstanding Restaurant. The dessert was a chocolate bourbon torte with marinated strawberries by Dolester Miles, the 2018 James Beard Award winner for Outstanding Pastry Chef.
Dining doesn’t get much better than that.
This most recent Florence dinner was the annual Spring Harvest Dinner helmed by Chef Ray Nichols, the Factory’s impressive young house chef. Chef Ray, inspired by a recent trip to France, did a French-inspired menu using local ingredients from the Shoals and nearby environs. The menu was also in French so my tablemates and I were kept busy with translations in addition to the exceptional meal.
The dinner was amazing. Chef Ray pulled out all the stops in this latest French-inspired meal.
As diners were seated at intimate table settings in the expansive room, an hors d’oeuvres course was served. It included a pork pate with gherkins and Dijon as well as escargot with butter and finely minced herbs.
The salad course was a fresh mixed salad perfectly tossed in a mustard vinaigrette. It put me in mind of the elaborate mixed salads I used to make for every occasion and that I have tended to simplify in recent years (though mine were never so beautifully dressed). I may be inspired to go back to my more elaborate salad days, tempered by the food knowledge I’ve gained by savoring the delights of the many food artists and restaurants – both grand and humble — that I’ve experienced through the years.
After such a beautiful beginning, the main course that arrived was truly the belle of the ball. Generous portions of steak au poivre were served with potatoes and wilted chard. The steak was perfectly cooked and juicy. Each course was accompanied by an organic French wine not yet available in Alabama. These included choice selections from Alsace, Beaujolais, and the Loire and Rhone valleys.
A cheese course featuring cow and goat cheeses from Bonnie Blue Farms (www.bonniebluefarm.com) was presented. The finale was a pound cake with luscious local strawberries and tarragon on a bed of lemon crème.
Ray Nichols became the Factory chef almost a year ago and quickly made his impressive mark with his Fall Harvest dinner in October 2017. In the meantime, he has hosted guest chefs and provides the culinary leadership for the Factory Café’s daily dining activities. His presence is a welcome fixture and inspiration at Factory dining events.