Tag Archives: Southern food and drink

Friends of the Cafe | Chef Cheetie Kumar | Conversion

 I have often confessed that my least favorite ethnic cuisine is Indian — Asian Indian (curse you, Christopher Columbus). This bias is borne by an aversion to the texture of much Indian food served in American restaurants, which all too often tastes and looks like baby food to my eye and palate. Also, and probably most importantly, since the 1980s I have often been dragged to Indian restaurants by people I didn’t particularly like. Personal and cultural prejudices are often odd things to pinpoint.

Having once again made my confession, I confess further that I have always enjoyed the blends of spices and ingredients of Indian cuisine. I vividly remember a vendor distributing samples of her Indian foods on the grounds of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1983; I hypnotically followed her back to her tent to savor more.

But, then, people and mediocrity muddled my perceptions.

A couple of years ago, Chef Asha Gomez and fabulous food inspirations from her birthplace in southern India and her adopted home of the American South made me once again and seriously rethink my reaction to Indian cuisine. This revelation came, not surprisingly, at a Friends of the Café event at the Alabama Chanin factory in Florence – the source of many of my recent food-related revelations (www.alabamachanin.com).

More recently, I have been reading Kevin Alexander’s new book, Burn the Ice: The American Culinary Revolution and Its End (Penguin Press, 2019), and one of my favorite threads in this wonderfully readable narrative is the story of Anjan and Emily Mitra and the evolution of their San Francisco restaurant DOSA and beyond (www.dosasf.com). Their effort to fight the stereotypes of Indian food with authentic and heartfelt cuisine makes me long for what I have obviously been missing.

Now, last week, Chef Cheetie Kumar – born in India, filtered through the Bronx, and the chef/owner of Raleigh’s Garland (www.garlandraleigh.com) — sealed the deal for me with an enthusiastically complex five-course meal at the most recent Friends of the Café dinner in Florence. My hesitation about authentic Indian cuisine has mostly been eradicated as of last week. Kumar’s Florence menu was not exclusively Indian, but the Indian details and techniques were a compelling presence throughout the evening.

I am being converted to a finer appreciation of Indian cuisine.

The August edition of the Friends of the Café events tends to be particularly frenetic since it occurs as a sort of preamble to fashion designer Billy Reid’s “Shindig,” a weekend of music, food, and fashion throughout the Shoals community.

The Friends of the Café events are always fund-raisers, often for Southern Foodways Alliance. John Paul White (www.johnpaulwhite.com), a talented musician on the Shoals-based Single Lock Records roster (www.singlelock.com), performed soulfully and authentically before and after the meal. The loquacious Eric Solomon of European Cellars, who curated the wines with Chef Kumar, spoke often and at length about his pairings.

Chef Kumar, who did not appear until after the memorable five-course meal was complete, was the star of the evening. Her dishes were complex but not complicated, beginning with the three passed appetizers that circulated through the café and designer’s show room as the guests assembled. Puffy profiteroles with hot honey and a smoked fish dip with pickled shallot on rye toast were among the appetizers, but I kept leaning in for a bite of the curry leaf polenta with spicy tomato chutney.

When the diners were seated, the diversity of flavor profiles continued to blend and surprise. At my table were Kelly Fields, the James Beard Award-winning Outstanding Pastry Chef of 2019, and her thoughtful sous chef from Willa Jean, a great place I discovered a couple of years ago in New Orleans (www.willajean.com). They were in town to prepare a course for a meal at one of Muscle Shoals’ legendary sound studios on Saturday night of Shindig. It was enlightening to eavesdrop on my tablemates’ expert analyses of each dish as it was presented.

The first seated course was a watermelon and peanut chaat followed by coconut-poached royal red shrimp, creamed corn and tapioca pudding, with Bengali five spice. The third course consisted of a memorable Punjabi grilled summer squash casserole with soft paneer cheese and a fragrant roasted tomato vinaigrette. I think that third dish was my favorite in an evening full of lovely tastes – mainly for the inventive, flavorful, and unexpected use of the summer squash.

The meaty fourth course was a lemongrass summer brisket – big chunks of brisket with fingerling potatoes and pickled green tomatoes in a fresh, steamy, and fragrant broth. Finally, the refreshing dessert course was buttermilk cardamom panna cotta with peaches, olive oil granita, pickled blueberries, meringue, and almonds.

Kumar, a self-taught chef, is also the guitarist for the rock band, Birds of Avalon. I haven’t heard Birds of Avalon yet, but I will attest to Cheetie Kumar’s rock stardom in the kitchen. The meal she presented was thoughtful and imaginative, with diverse and balanced ingredients. It was a meal that will be remembered.

The Friends of the Café dinner series continues to provide an enlightening food education and the introduction to a splendid array of food artists and artisans – both in the kitchen and as fellow guests at the table.

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New Orleans to Bessemer, 2019

The Bright Star Restaurant’s “Night in New Orleans,” which had its thirtieth incarnation last week, has become a rite of passage for the month of August at the venerable 1907 restaurant in Bessemer, just down I-20/59 from Birmingham. Long billed as “Alabama’s Oldest Restaurant” and the winner of a 2010 James Beard Foundation Award as an “American Classic,” Bright Star has remained a popular dining destination even after the heavy industry that once defined Bessemer has slipped away (www.brightstar.com).

It was my father’s favorite restaurant; at his funeral, one of the ministers quipped in his eulogy that “Grover would sell his lawnmower to eat at the Bright Star.”

“Night in New Orleans” is a three-night event in which a New Orleans chef takes over the Bright Star kitchen and offers selections from a Crescent City restaurant. The late Jamie Shannon of Commander’s Palace and Tory McPhail, current executive chef of Commander’s, are among the notable past chefs who have presided over the event.

This year’s chef, Thomas Robey, recently took over executive chef duties at Tujague’s, the 163-year-old New Orleans staple on Decatur Street on the river side of the French Quarter. Tujague’s is probably most recognizable to New Orleans visitors for the iconic sign over America’s oldest stand-up bar on the corner of Decatur and Madison. The doors are always open and the bar is always crowded with locals and tourists alike (www.tujaguesrestaurant.com).

Chef Robey is no stranger to Birmingham or the Bright Star. He was on Jamie Shannon’s staff for previous “Night in New Orleans” events in the ‘90s and was executive chef of Birmingham’s Veranda on Highlands for several years. He left Veranda for another stint with McPhail at Commander’s before being named executive chef of Tujague’s in summer 2018.

Mother and I arrived on a Saturday evening about twenty minutes before the restaurant opened. A sizable crowd was already waiting in the Bright Star’s large lobby space – a crowd clearly made up mostly of the Bright Star’s dining room’s seasoned veterans. Some chose to sport Mardi Gras beads for the occasion and New Orleans jazz was just audible over the general din as Bright Star hosts began to quickly seat the crowd.

The menu for these events is split into two parts – one features dishes from Bright Star’s regular menu and the other is a sampling of the guest chef’s dishes from his home restaurant. Since my mother has dietary restrictions, the Bright Star part of the menu was her reliable go-to.

I was there, however, for the tastes of New Orleans and focused on the Tujague’s menu, choosing the cheesy char-broiled oysters as my first course. Other first course options were a shrimp and tasso bisque and a watermelon and tomato salad.

The main course offered a skin-on snapper over a corn maque choux, pan-roasted Maple Leaf duck breast, and a grilled pork loin with a mirliton dressing. I, of course, opted for the seafood and the snapper arrived atop a generous and complex maque choux, an elevated succotash-like preparation. Chef Robey’s iteration had a corn and tomato base with finely chopped peppers, green onions, peas, okra, and Creole spices. As I was trying to break down the maque choux ingredients for Mother, Chef Robey strolled past our tableside to explain that the name “maque choux” is probably a French derivation of a Native American name for the dish, which has become an amalgamation of indigenous and Creole techniques.

For the final taste of New Orleans, there was a creamy Grasshopper panna cotta – a nod to the minty signature cocktail invented at Tujague’s in 1918. Garnished with chocolate mints, it was a smooth capper to a rich New Orleans-inspired meal.

Leaving Bright Star’s “Night in New Orleans” in the sultry summer dusk, the urge is strong to take I-59 southbound and travel the quick five hours to experience another night in New Orleans for real.

Big Bad Chef

In January 2006, four and a half months after the disaster in the aftermath of Katrina, I drove to New Orleans to join a crew of volunteers assembled by the Southern Foodways Alliance (www.southernfoodways.org) to work on the resurrection of Willie Mae’s Scotch House in Treme. Willie Mae’s is a neighborhood place in New Orleans that was designated an “America’s Classic” by the James Beard Foundation in 2005, less than four months before the storm. Willie Mae Seaton’s fried chicken is often declared the best anywhere (www.williemaesnola.com). Willie Mae passed away but her legacy is carried on by her great-granddaughter, Kerry Seaton Stewart.

When I got to my hotel after an eight-hour drive, there was no room available. I produced a print-out of my reservation and confirmation number but the little French Quarter hotel – a place I had stayed at and enjoyed in the past – was full of construction workers who were working on the larger reconstruction efforts around the city. The desk clerk called a couple of places and declared there were no rooms in the area to be had at short notice. I was too tired to argue.

I blame myself. When I made the reservation in December, the staff Christmas party was going on in the background so maybe – confirmation or not – my reservation was lost in their revelry.

Despondent, I emailed my regrets to the SFA folks and drove back to Alabama that same night.

If I had figured out a way to stay and work, I would have been working with Chef John Currence, who headed up the Willie Mae’s restoration.


Currence, a New Orleans native who made his culinary mark in Oxford, Mississippi, may be as well-known for his philanthropy as he is for his restaurant brand. City Grocery, his flagship restaurant on the Square in Oxford, is a fine dining restaurant with a famously rowdy upstairs bar. Snackbar and Boure are other Currence ventures in Oxford along with Big Bad Breakfast. Big Bad Breakfast also has locations in Alabama and Florida (www.citygroceryonline.com).

I’ve had a couple of great meals at City Grocery and was thrilled when it was announced that John Currence would be the guest chef for the August Friends of the Café event at Alabama Chanin’s Florence factory. He had been on my wish list of possible chefs for the series.

The Friends of the Café series of chefs and dinners is always announced in advance (www.alabamachanin.com). However, the August chef is kept secret until a few weeks before the event. This dinner always happens on the Thursday night before the opening of Billy Reid’s weekend-long “Shindig” the next day. I was happy when Currence was announced in July.

Currence’s dishes for the evening were paired with wines selected by Eric Solomon, a champion importer of French and Spanish wines through his European Cellars distributors in Charlotte. Solomon’s passion came through in his presentations and descriptions throughout the evening (www.europeancellars.com).

Passed hors d’oeuvres included a chicken liver pate with pickled egg mimosa on grilled bread. The hearty second pass-around was kheema pao, an Indian street food stalwart, with spiced lamb, soft scramble, cilantro chutney, and slivered serrano peppers served on a hefty sweet roll.

As the diners were seated, a first course of sweet corn soup with marinated blue crab arrived at the table. The course that followed was grilled summer vegetables served with spiced yogurt, smoked almonds, sweet onion, and a lemon vinegar. At the end of the night, Chef Currence touchingly revealed that the vinegar we were served was made from champagne that had been part of his mother’s cellar.

The third course was a perfectly prepared beef ribeye with celery root puree, vinegar-wilted arugula, and chimichurri. The dinner ended with the most elegantly presented Mississippi Mud Pie I have ever tasted. It was a soulful, well-paced meal, pleasingly complemented by Solomon’s pairings.


Currence’s food philosophy is on vivid display in his 2013 cookbook, Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey: Recipes from My Three Favorite Food Groups (and then some) (Andrews McMeel Publishing). The book is an enjoyable and colorful collection of profanity-laced insights on food and great recipes. Currence draws from his culinary training, international travel, a New Orleans upbringing, and long-time Mississippi residency for recipes that resonate and thrill. His culinary viewpoint is headstrong and provocative and his cookbook is a showcase for his culinary tastes and his opinions; I tend to agree with most of his takes on food, as I do with his takes on politics in his unbridled social media posts. The text of the cookbook, like the food Currence champions and serves, is honest and to the point.

This is not your grandmother’s cookbook.

After the dinner, Currence signed my copy of Pickles, Pigs, and Whiskey. As he signed, with a typical Big Bad Chef flourish, he blacked out a tooth on his picture on the facing page and gave himself a diabolical moustache.

It’s always hard to imagine how each Friends of the Café dinner might be topped. The parade of master chefs who present there seems to always come through. Add Big Bad John Currence to the list.

John Currence photo by Angie Mosier; photo defaced by John Currence

Iced Tea Digressions

IMG_1412 In December 1989 I was in New England traveling with a theatre tour. In a tiny joint near the waterfront in New London, Connecticut, I ordered iced tea with lunch. The crusty waitress eyed me suspiciously and said, “It’s December. We don’t have iced tea in December.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “Now here’s a question: Do you serve hot coffee in July?”

She admitted that she did and laughed as she walked away. I channeled the diner scene in Five Easy Pieces for a moment but I let it go and had a glass of water with my meal.

There is always at least one pitcher of tea in my refrigerator at any given time. I have never been much of a coffee drinker but I mostly fit the Southern stereotype about iced tea; I drink it frequently and year-round. A glass of iced tea is the first thing I pour when I get up in the morning and the first thing I pour when I come home at the end of the workday. I bring a thermal tumbler of iced tea to my office each day and am usually able to nurse it until time to go home.

Iced tea is one of the many great things that was popularized during the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904 but it goes back farther than that date. It is ubiquitous at Southern tables and in Southern restaurants and “sweet or unsweet?” is the standard question when iced tea is ordered in a restaurant in the South.

When I am out, I usually order “sweet” but the sweet iced tea in restaurants is often a little too sweet for my taste. I like it a little sweet and what I make at home tends to be much less sweet than what is served at many restaurants, especially the chains. As I have become more wary of processed sugars, I have begun to use alternative sweeteners, sometimes with a little honey added, to sweeten my home-made tea.

I was once given an electric iced tea maker as a gift. It seemed heretical at the time, but I got used to it, began to like the way I could easily add mint, orange peel, and other seasonal flavors into the mix, and even bought a new iced tea maker when the first one broke. My replacement broke a few months ago and I intended to replace it but haven’t gotten around to it yet. I am enjoying the stove-top process again although I had to tweak my formulas just a bit to get it right.

Growing up, the teabags in our house and at Grandmother’s were usually Lipton and occasionally Red Diamond, a tea and coffee brand based in Birmingham, or Luzianne out of New Orleans. When I was out on my own, I gravitated to Lipton and that was my iced tea brand of choice for a long time.

That all changed after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when I heard on a television report that the Luzianne factory did not lay off any employees post-storm and, in fact, continued paying employees their full checks during the time that the operation was closed in the aftermath of the flood. I have not been able to confirm that story, but Luzianne became my iced tea brand of choice from then on. Such corporate loyalty to employees is rare these days and deserves our support.

A key to serving iced tea is to have lemon wedges and long-handled teaspoons nearby. Also, one must always have plenty of ice cubes on hand. In the days before most refrigerators had ice dispensers, I would go into friends’ kitchens and fill their ice trays upon arrival if I knew these were people who were negligent about what I consider to be the essential task of constant in-home ice production. I still keep full ice trays in the freezer in case of an emergency.

Last Christmas, friends who know my affinity for iced drinks gave me a gift of spherical ice — plastic contraptions that each produce one perfectly round and substantial circle of ice. They’re a modern miracle and a perfect gift – the ice globe is pleasing to look at, melts slowly, and just fits in an old-fashioned glass. Two will work for a tall glass of tea. At lunch on New Year’s Day, people were whipping out their phones like the paparazzi to photograph my drink with a round globe of ice sitting majestically inside.

After a brutal Winter, it’s finally Spring and warmer weather is settling in. Wherever we live or travel, we should all be able to drink our fill of iced tea without having to explain ourselves.

Back in 1989, during that same theatre tour that took me to New London, I was in a restaurant in downtown Burlington, Vermont, a few days before Christmas. The waiter asked for my drink order and I said “iced tea.” He wrote down my order and went back to the kitchen.

A few minutes later, the owner of the restaurant came out from the back and introduced himself.

“Where are you from?’ he asked.

“Alabama.”

“I’m from South Carolina,” he said. “That’s why we serve iced tea in December.” It turned out that his wait staff had instructions to inform him whenever a patron ordered iced tea during cold months. He said that was always a signal that another Southerner was in the house.