Tag Archives: Chef Ray Nichols

Florence Recolte du Printemps

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.

photo by Anne Fletcher

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.

photo by Anne Fletcher

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Red Beans Road Show

When I was first visiting New Orleans on a regular basis, Buster Holmes restaurant on the corner of Burgundy and Orleans was still in operation serving distinctive New Orleans food at amazingly reasonable prices. It was a no-frills place with a jukebox and a diverse clientele. It was well-known for catering to New Orleans musicians and was famous for its simple and excellent food.

Buster’s was best known for red beans and rice, that hearty New Orleans kitchen stalwart that was the traditional meal for Mondays – “wash day” for many households. Cooks could put on a big pot of red beans, let it simmer, go about their other chores, and have a good nutritious meal to eat on throughout the rest of the day.

Buster’s came to mind recently as I traveled with my friend Madeleine – who has been known as “Bunny” her entire life – to Florence for my first dinner of 2018 at the Alabama Chanin Factory (www.alabamachanin.com). The January dinner was a special Factory add-on and was not part of the Factory’s “Friends of the Café” series which will kick off its fourth season of dinners by award-winning chefs in April.

New Orleans-based writer, photographer, and raconteur Pableaux Johnson has been presenting the “Red Beans Road Show” for a few years now in a variety of locales. The event hearkens back to Johnson’s childhood memories of meals around his grandmother’s large round kitchen table. When that same table came into his possession, he felt a need to “feed the table” with informal Monday night red beans and rice dinners. Subsequently, epicurious.com recently named Pableaux Johnson to its list of “100 Greatest Home Cooks of All Time.” That “of All Time” phrase is pretty heady stuff (www.pableaux.com).

The ensuing “Red Beans Road Show” project is a series of traveling pop-up dinners inspired by meals around Johnson’s grandmother’s table and Pableaux’s desire to share Louisiana culture (www.redbeansroadshow.com).

It’s a simple premise. A local host provides the venue, the starters, and the dessert, and Johnson provides the heart of the meal – red beans and rice with skillet cornbread. Diners eat family-style around a table and lively conversation and new friendships accrue.

The Alabama Chanin Factory, helmed by Natalie Chanin with the Factory kitchen run by chef Ray Nichols, is the perfect setting for the concept; the precedent set by the “Friends of the Café” series makes it comfortable and familiar.

Bunny and I were greeted by Natalie Chanin when we arrived on a rainy Thursday night with a brutal cold front moving in. The crowd was mingling and exploring the racks of the Alabama Chanin showroom as appetizers were circulated. Pableaux Johnson’s photographs of Mardi Gras Indians were displayed on Factory walls and provided additional visual stimulation to the perfectly curated Factory space. We were a little late and I only got to the deviled eggs but I caught sight of other starters across the room.

Pableaux Johnson provided an animated introduction and explanation of the evening to the guests before we moved on to our seats at the many tables set up in the space. Once seated, huge bowls of rice appeared followed by bowls full of red beans. The assembled began to fill our bowls as plates of cornbread arrived to complete the serving.

Over the years I have realized that there are as many opinions about what constitutes the proper red beans and rice as there are people who eat it. Pableaux Johnson’s recipe for “Monday Night Red Beans” hits all of the high points and is a superior palate pleaser. Briefly, his version uses Louisiana-sourced Camellia brand red beans, andouille sausage, Tony Cachere’s Creole Seasoning, and Crystal Hot Sauce, along with the expected herbs, vegetables, and seasoning. It’s a pretty basic red bean recipe – no extreme frills or flourishes or experimentation – and it’s delicious.

The cornbread was a source of some culinary controversy as Johnson warned the gathering in advance that his cornbread contains a small amount of sugar. Those are fightin’ words in some quarters (including in my family) but the cornbread was very tasty nevertheless and a good complement to the savory dish. In Pableaux’s defense (if he needs one), the bit of sugar is part of his family’s cornbread recipe and that’s good enough justification for me. In fact, after a brief conversation with Pableaux in which I let him know that my mother is a bit of a cornbread snob, he brought over a couple of slices of the cornbread for me to take to Birmingham for her inspection.

Between the red beans course and the dessert, Pableaux discussed the Mardi Gras Indian portraits which lined two walls of the dining area. The Mardi Gras Indians have a rich and literally colorful history and tradition that is uniquely New Orleans and Pableaux’s respect for their craft and folkways is evident in his art and in his rendering of their story. It was satisfying to see the intricate details of the Indians’ painstakingly rendered and hand-sewn regalia sharing space with the meticulously crafted and hand-sewn garments of the Alabama Chanin showroom.

Chef Ray Nichols’s kitchen provided the dessert, a beautiful banana pudding that provided the ideal tasty end to a relaxing and rejuvenating evening at the Factory. As the guests departed, there was a washtub full of bags of Camellia red beans. Each guest received a bag of beans and a copy of Pableaux’s “Monday Night Red Beans” recipe.

Exchanging goodbyes with Natalie Chanin, we noted how nice it was to have an event such as the Red Beans Road Show so near the end of the holiday season (and, also, to kick off the Carnival season commencing on the Gulf Coast). I’m hoping there will be other such events at the Factory to signal the start of years and Mardi Gras seasons to come.

Bunny and I made our way home through a winter mist and fog and, by the time we got home, work and school were cancelled for the next day due to inclement weather. I’m happy the hard freeze waited until the Florence version of the Red Beans Road Show had reached its successful end. 

Harvest and Rejuvenation

The cotton fields – which are still abundant between Decatur and Florence, Alabama – were peaking and startlingly beautiful with their fluffy and practical white yield as my friend  Anne and I made our way to the Alabama Chanin factory and the last dinner of the 2017 season (www.alabamachanin.com).

It was in this in-between area, around the community of Trinity, that I was one of many volunteers that helped out for a morning or a day with Alabama Chanin and Billy Reid’s 2012 experiment in growing organic cotton in north Alabama. With the industrialization and outsourcing of cotton harvesting, working the field was a “back to the roots” experience which helped me to recognize and honor the hard work of my own relatives who worked the cotton fields and harvests of their own Alabama farms in the first half of the twentieth century.

Inventive souls are finding new uses for local cotton these days, including downtown Birmingham’s Redmont Distillery which features an “Alabama Cotton Gin,” a spirit which is “distilled through Alabama cotton” and infused with other local product (www.redmontdistilling.com).

The most recent Alabama Chanin dinner was a celebration of the fall harvest, helmed by Ray Nichols, the new in-house chef for the Café at the Factory, who comes with an already impressive resume and who, before joining Alabama Chanin, was at Odette, a charming dining spot in downtown Florence. It was a rich season of Friends of the Café meals starting with Chef Scott Peacock re-emerging for an Easter season event and moving forward with the return of Chef Ashley Christensen for her second meal of the series. In August, in conjunction with the Billy Reid Shindig, Chef Asha Gomez presented a meal combining her American Southern experiences with her roots in southern India.

Chef Nichols’s dinner was a sold-out mix of locals, regulars, and new faces. Our friend Carol from Chicago showed up accompanied by a charming Chicago friend. We met guests from Hawaii and Colorado and a yoga master from Gray Bear Lodge in nearby Hohenwald, Tennessee. I have written before that there are times when the former tee-shirt factory in the industrial section of Florence seems like the center of the universe; chance meetings and serendipity abound.

Young Chef Nichols impressively held his own with his predecessors with a hearty dinner featuring the harvest of the region along with a couple of tasty imports, like Conway Cup oysters from Prince Edward Island. The mildly briny oyster was topped with a Harvest Roots kimchi from Mentone, a scenic village on Lookout Mountain in northeast Alabama. The oysters on the half shell were pass-arounds at the start of the evening along with deviled eggs topped with a Harvest Roots curtido.

The pre-dinner beverage was served in a brown sugar-rimmed glass partially filled with cider from Florence’s Singin’ River Brewery. The cider was cut with Prosecco and the drink was finished with a splash of Sangria. 

When the guests were seated and the preliminary introductions were completed, platters of smoked chicken wings, pickled vegetables, and toasts topped with Bonnie Blue goat cheese were served family-style. The chicken was coated with a white sauce (this is, after all, north Alabama), and the goat cheese was from Waynesboro, Tennessee, just off the Natchez Trace.

A harvest salad with an abundance of greens and local harvest from area farms was served next with a burnt honey–sweet potato dressing. The main course featured Bear Creek pork served two ways. A large and tasty pork rib was presented alongside a ham steak. Both were accompanied by farro verde, turnips, and muscadine.

The dessert lived up to its preamble. A crumbly sweet potato cake and a creamy semolina pudding were garnished with cashews and citrus. 

Ray Nichols’s debut for an Alabama Chanin factory special dinner was a triumph with every bite, heralding a bright new presence in the Factory kitchen that will maintain and enhance an already impressive standard.

The yoga master asked me at some point during the evening if I spent my time going from one amazing dining experience to another. I wish … but no, I do not. Such evenings are few and far between in my schedule and each is anticipated with pleasure. I feel rejuvenated and ready to face the day to day challenges when I have the opportunity to eat an amazing meal in a singular place in the company of delightful people.