Shortly after walking into Birmingham's beloved Hot and Hot Fish Club recently to chat with Chef Chris Hastings, I was greeted by a warm smile, a firm handshake and a bottle of sparkling San Pellegrino by the Chef himself. As far as culinary royalty goes, Chef Hastings is certainly on that list. He's a James Beard winning, Iron Chef conquering, seafood loving, PB & J eatin', passionate and inspiring chef. Read on as he talks about his most unforgettable meal, what it was like competing against Bobby Flay, his awesome advice for serious home cooks, and lots more...
Let's start with what everyone wants to know about a phenomenal chef: What are at least 5 items that you always have stocked in your home kitchen?
- Collection of fresh herbs
- Seasonal fruits and vegetables
- Good olive oils, grains and vinegars, or what I call a well-stocked "larder". Larder being an old term for your cellar or where you store dried goods.
- Interesting sauces, whether they be a sriracha, hoisin or hot-sauce. Things that are in that go-to that I may not necessarily make myself. A well-stocked pantry is very important.
- A six pack of beer from Back Forty Beer Co.
- Red wine
Julia Child's world was changed by a simple dish of perfectly cooked Sole Meuniere. In fact, she described the dish as "...the most exciting meal of my life". Tell me about your most unforgettable meal.
I tend to think first and most often about the meals that I had with my family when I was a child. I was responsible for going out and catching the seafood, and then my mother, grandmother and aunts would cook all of the local vegetables and we'd have these amazing spreads of steamed crabs, oysters, flounder, and shrimp. We'd eat it all family style on a big, huge open table. Those are the things that I remember as most impactful, certainly as a young person, that made me super aware of the value, power and magic of food, and the hope of great food.
"Those are the things that I remember as most impactful, certainly as a young person, that made me super aware of the value, power and magic of food, and the hope of great food."
Professionally, I had a great meal in a restaurant in Venice called Da Fiore. I'll never forget - I had been to the Rialto market that morning and saw all the beautiful ingredients. It was a mind-blowing experience. Then, that evening we went and had a wonderful meal there where we had the famed soft-shelled crabs from Venice. We also had a squid-ink risotto that was still to this day one of my most distinct food memories. We had a beautiful orange gelato for dessert that had an amazing texture and flavor. What I remember most about those things is that they were so simple, yet so delicious and were executed perfectly. It wasn't particularly fancy, but it was just perfect risotto, perfect soft-shelled crabs and perfect gelato. Having been to the market that morning and seeing all those ingredients really tied together a lot of things for me and the value and importance of it, which was amazing.
The farm-to-table philosophy is such an incredibly important concept. What are some key points about this philosophy that you think readers should know?
Farm-to-table for me, is the way we do business. It's at the core of what we do. One of the most asked questions I get is, "How do I access the ingredients you, the chef, use?" One of the things in the chef industry is how do we solve a problem that is an increasingly worrisome food supply, where we don't know the chemicals going into food and there's no oversight or regulations on chemicals put into food, processed foods and on labeling? We're seeing some really negative results from these things, such as an increase in Asperger Syndrome and ADHD. We instinctively know that what we eat affects our health, and it's just not complicated. What I hope for is that through this farm-to-table movement that we champion here, we can, one purveyor at a time, help businesses not only become recognized, but expand the community's knowledge that they're here and that they show up at farmers' markets and people begin to discover them. The next thing you know, the network that is right now just a restaurant network becomes a community's food supply over time. But, that takes a long time. So, what you have to do is approach it one bite at a time. You plant a seed today and hope that your children's children may live in a world where that seed is a mature tree and they lie under that tree and enjoy a life that is healthier, and that access to better foods is the norm, not the privilege of the wealthy. The farm-to-table concept affords me the best products in the world. I get to play with them everyday and have an amazing time being involved with these people. My hope is that, after I'm long gone, this movement will be evolved and mature enough to solve a lot of problems that I think are tough issues for our country.
"You plant a seed today and hope that your children's children may live in a world where that seed is a mature tree and they lie under that tree and enjoy a life that is healthier, and that access to better foods is the norm, not the privilege of the wealthy."
Where do you stand on the organic vs. not-organic debate?
I'm not a hardliner about organic only. Some chemicals, if used properly, are good. It's when you know what the chemicals can do and how their properties work, and that they have a toxicity period and become non-harmful because it deteriorates over time. Then, I'm okay with that. As long as it's handled well and properly. Would I love things to be more sustainable and organic? Absolutely. But I understand some of the challenges of farming. Where I get a little more concerned is there are challenges when saying "Well, it's strictly all organic." It's difficult for farming communities to go from what they've done for the last 75-100 years to not doing chemicals at all. There has to be a transitional moment. I just want good quality produce, and animals that have been treated in a healthy environment where they're allowed to eat things that aren't loaded up with hormones and chemicals. I worry less about agricultural chemicals than I do about processed chemicals. I think that's a big concern. As long as you aren't using chemicals that are carried over to your food. I worry about the modification of the genetics. That seems unsafe and no one really knows about the long-term affects.
Seasonality is also important. Simple meals made from the very best, seasonal ingredients are always the best...hands-down . How has seasonality been an inspiration to you, and how has it been a restriction?
Seasonality has no restrictions for us, because we have such a network of purveyors around the south and the country that we use. Twenty years ago it was a little more challenging, because we just didn't have the vast network of farmers, and people who raised chickens, goats, pigs...you name it. That infrastructure took a minute to discover, to support and have time to grow, so that it was big enough to not only support their families but then enough to produce to sell to numerous restaurants.
Everybody is quick to fawn over the chef, but who are the heroes of the chefs? Those are the purveyors...The people who give their life to doing something exceptionally well. Whether that's raising oysters, chickens, vegetables, heritage breed animals, make cheese, and on and on. These people are where I get my inspiration, and I'm so indebted to them for their passion and commitment, because we couldn't do what we aspire to do without them. They are our real heroes. They're an extension of our family.
"Everybody is quick to fawn over the chef, but who are the heroes of the chefs? Those are the purveyors..."
When it comes to developing new recipes, what inspires you the most?
The ingredients themselves and their flavors. For example, when you taste the first-of-the-season crawfish, ramps, shad roe, and all kinds of things, tasting them and thinking about them in relation to those things that are available now gives us a lot of inspiration, because you taste it and go, "Wow!". Maybe it's been a year since you've tasted it last. We don't serve things unless they're in their height. Tasting that first-of-the-season ingredient is a wonderful reminder of those flavors and how we combine them and respect those flavors. At the end of the day, you can't put together food that's a whole bunch of food thrown together on a plate. You have to put it together in a logical fashion that allows each one of the flavors to be realized individually, but yet eaten together is a real WOW moment for the guest. That's not easily accomplished. You do it partly through good technique, the combination of ingredients, and textural contrast. You also have to bring some balance in terms of fat and acid to the table. There's a lot of moving parts to a really well-executed dish, even if it's only a handful of ingredients you have to think through a number of things to make it that WOW moment.
Is there a particular culinary trend for 2013 that you're most excited about?
I think that a healthy focus on eating and vegetables being a bigger part of the ratio of what you eat is changing. I think people are getting away from having a big ole' giant piece of protein and then a little bit of vegetables. I think a shift is taking place and a more balanced approach is the becoming the norm.
I see particularly the younger generation very concerned and interested in what's going into their body, where their food is accessed from, learning how to cook better, caring more about the provenance of their food. I think that's a really healthy trend.
If you could eat dinner tonight anywhere in the world, where would it be and what would you order?
In the USA, I'd go eat with Daniel Patterson at COI Restaurant. I think he's doing really great work. I've also never eaten at Paul Bocuse's restaurant, and I think that would be worthwhile. I would want to eat at the very best restaurant in Japan...There's a noodle guy in Japan (I forget his name because I can't pronounce it), and I'd love to eat there. That's a tough question, because there's so many great restaurants.
I love that you're involved with the Alabama Seafood Commission. How have things been going since the big oil spill?
Good! You may know that the Gulf is the most tested and regulated water in the world due to that spill. The science has been really good on the samples of fish and shellfish out of the Gulf, particularly Alabama seafood. We're really interested in getting this amazing, delicious and healthy seafood into the hands of people who, because of the oil spill, may have decided to give it a rest until they're certain that it's okay...And it's fine. We have to train people to get back into the habit of asking the important question of where your seafood is from. For example, 80% of shrimp on the market in America is imported. Where is your fish from? You've got the same problem. You've got a lot of fish from other countries being dumped onto our market that are farm-raised and aren't regulated well, which is scary from a chemical stand-point. We want people to ask themselves these important questions, so that they can get the best quality and support their local communities. It takes us back to the hope of future generations. You want your children's children to be able to go anywhere in their community and get great stuff. Always ask for wild-caught Alabama shrimp and fin fishes. Know who your oystermen and fishermen are and try to really support that. If we don't make a conscious decision to support those people and the chain is broken and a generation drops out of the supply side because business drops and they can't support their family, there's not going to be somebody to step into those shoes and fill it. College graduates don't become oystermen and fishermen. So, we've got to recognize that Gulf seafood has been part of our identity and love of where we are and then realize that if we don't want those traditions to disappear than we have to make a cognizant decision when we go to the grocery store to buy wild-caught Alabama shrimp, oysters, fin fishes, crabs and all of that. If we don't take a personal responsibility for everybody out there, than shame on us because it will go away.
"We've got to recognize that Gulf seafood has been part of our identity and love of where we are and then realize that if we don't want those traditions to disappear than we have to make a cognizant decision when we go to the grocery store to buy wild-caught Alabama shrimp, oysters, fin fishes, crabs and all of that."
With a James Beard award and also a win against Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America under your belt, the past year has been incredible. With such an outstanding career, do you have any plans to open additional restaurants in the future?
It's been an awesome year! Yes, we are actually. We're looking to expand our brand a little bit. So, we're going about the process of figuring it out now, so it's an exciting time.
So tell me, what was it like beating Bobby Flay on Iron Chef?
That was a really cool experience because you don't get invited everyday. That's just one of those things in our world that is very special. I had never really thought about it until they called. It was such a surreal experience. After it happened and we had actually won, we couldn't say anything to anybody. It was like, "What just happened?? Oh my gosh, what does this mean??" It was hard to really get your brain around what it meant until people started to react. Letters poured in from all around, particularly the South. What I realized from this outpouring of emotion was that people were really proud, they were from a southern perspective and loved seeing someone put a really good face on a southern person and business. You know, a lot of times we get painted in a different light. That show really represented the farming community and the food that's produced here. If you saw the show, you could really tell that this was food from somewhere special. Alabamians were really proud, southerners were really proud, and of course we were too. We didn't go into that whole thing with the idea that our goal was to beat Bobby Flay. We said winning for us is not defined by beating the Iron Chef, it's defined by representing ourselves, our brand, our state and our region in an honest, real way. We worked really hard to think about how we wanted to present food. We took pottery from Earthborn Pottery, moon shine, local vegetables and fruits. We applied our sensibilities so that when the judges ate it and you saw the effort that went into it, it was very clearly whom we are and where we're from. It worked. Without the pressure of winning, it allowed us to win.
What would people be surprised to find in your kitchen?
I have a bunch of game that I've shot. It might also surprise people that peanut butter & jelly is my favorite sandwich after work. That might be a shocker. I like black raspberry or blackberry jam and smooth Jif. That's kind of my late night pleasure. That might surprise some folks.
What advice would you give a serious home cook?
Don't be afraid to develop your own style and your own personal approach to food. I find that home cooks are unconfident and so bought into the recipe that they can't change anything. Food is not that way. A recipe is a guideline, unless you're baking. You need to approach it in a way that's not so anxiety ridden. Relax and enjoy the process and channel your inner chef. Just go with it and enjoy it. Cooking should be that. That is the hope of the process, that it's a cathartic, relaxing, enjoyable journey through a creative process that allows you to evolve your thinking, gain some knowledge, develop confidence and begin to think about what you really like and enjoy in cooking. The last thing I'll say, is that to produce good food you need good ingredients, but you also need to understand a balance between fat and acid - olive oil and lemon juice, white wine and butter, vinegar and olive oil. That balance and understanding and how you use it in a judicious way to brighten and intensify flavor so it's maximized is really important.
"That is the hope of the process, that it's a cathartic, relaxing, enjoyable journey through a creative process that allows you to evolve your thinking, gain some knowledge, develop confidence and begin to think about what you really like and enjoy in cooking."
Thanks again to Chef Hastings, for taking the time to meet with me!! His restaurant can be found at:
Hot and Hot Fish Club
2180 11th Court South
Birmingham, Alabama 35205
Birmingham, Alabama 35205
Tuesday – Saturday