Dave Garfrerick is a gentleman farmer who started up Garfrerick's Café in Oxford almost two years ago.
The two chefs have been friends for more than 10 years, ever since Garfrerick showed up at the back door of the Hot and Hot Fish Club, selling organic fruits, vegetables and herbs out of the back of his truck. "He had amazing stuff," remembers Hastings. "You can't let a guy like that get away."
When Garfrerick decided to open a restaurant, Hastings served as his mentor. Garfrerick still supplies produce for Hastings' restaurant.
On Tuesday, the two celebrate food and friendship when Hastings comes to town for a celebrity chef night at Garfrerick's Café. He'll cook a four-course dinner, paired with wines, for $85 per person (tax and gratuity included).
Hastings, 48, runs the Hot and Hot Fish Club with his wife, Idie, a pastry chef. In 1998, they received the Robert Mondavi Culinary Award of Excellence, and have been mentioned in The New York Times, USA Today and Food and Wine magazine. Hastings has twice been nominated for James Beard's Best Chef in the South award.
Last fall, Chris and Idie published The Hot and Hot Fish Club Cookbook: A Celebration of Food, Family and Traditions (Running Press Books, $35), with more than 200 recipes focused on seasonal and local ingredients.
Here are the highlights from a recent conversation with Hastings:
Let's start at the beginning. You grew up in North Carolina. Were you always interested in food?
To the extent that I enjoyed it. I spent a lot of time around my mother's apron strings, just being in the kitchen with her. I remember great meals with our family. We'd spend time in South Carolina, Pawleys Island. I would spend untold number of hours in the salt marshes, crabbing and fishing.
What did you catch?
Blue crabs, shrimp, flounder, redfish, bluefish, pompano, clams, oysters. A lot of times the crabs were just boiled and dumped out whole on the table.
Did that influence what you do now at the restaurant?
Well, we're not dumping a dozen steamed blue crabs on the table and cracking them. But the idea of extraordinarily fresh, high-quality seafood, prepared in a simple way — yes. Whole roasted fish is something we do a lot of at the restaurant. That was certainly a lesson learned in my childhood: a freshly caught fish, roasted whole, eaten right off the bone. One of the tenets of good cooking is, if you want more flavor, cook it on the bone. Steak, chicken, fish; the bones have lots of flavor that they lend to whatever you're cooking.
How'd you come up with the name 'Hot and Hot Fish Club?'
My great-great-great-great-grandfather started a men's club with a bunch of other gentlemen, rice planters in the low country of South Carolina, in 1840. It was the Hot and Hot Fish Club, a colloquialism of the time. You and I would say "piping hot" now. It refers to food that's just put on the table, piping hot, right out of the oven.
They would gather in the clubhouse, with provisions from the plantations, and go out in the salt marsh and catch fish. Then they would sit down to a big meal in the clubhouse, fish that was just prepared, hot and hot.
It was very important to them to be with their friends, break bread, have a libation or two. They wrote a lot about that in their diaries. It resonated with me, as a young person cooking, that these guys really, really found it valuable to have a place of solace.
That's what I want to do: create a place where the door can close behind customers and they can escape, for a time, over a meal, with their friends. To provide that for folks, along with a great meal, is a pretty cool thing.
Is the oil spill in the Gulf affecting you?
For 15 years, that's been the major body of water where we've sourced all our seafood. We didn't really do much sourcing in and around the New Orleans area; most of our sourcing is really Panama City east. To that extent, we're OK right now. We're still getting beautiful, fresh shrimp and fish.
But I've talked to every fishing community from Mobile to all the way over to Tallahassee, and everybody's worried. The oil is still leaking, and it's going to wind up moving east. All the fishermen I talk to are still fishing, and say they'll keep fishing till they can't fish any more. They're not even jacking up the prices. They're just hard-working, honest folks.
Are you grieving at this point?
It's almost incomprehensible. My children's children may not know what I know, and my children know. They may never in their lifetime be able to go out and gig a flounder or catch a blue crab. Or toss a sand flea to a pompano running the beach in the springtime.
That may not be the case; it might be manageable. But if you look at the volume of oil that's in the ocean now…. My concern is that, if all of that oil winds up in the estuaries — essentially the birthplace of all seafood except for pelagic fish — the food chain potentially could be broken. I can't get my brain around the magnitude of that. If you live down there, say you're an oystering family or a shrimping family, you make your living on those waters, it's incredibly devastating.
OK, this has gotten too depressing. Let's talk about something else. How about the restaurant's emphasis on local foods?
We were on the leading edge of farm-to-table before it was cool. If you look back at the '70s, chefs like Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower began to look at the American farming landscape and celebrate American products. Before that, the great chefs of the world were either French or Italian. We hadn't really identified who we were as a country.
When I lived and worked in California, farmers markets were big, people were dialing into great cheesemakers, apiaries with honey, local fishermen. There was an American food scene that was really burgeoning.
When we moved from California to Birmingham, we wanted our restaurant to reflect a very small footprint of here, 200 miles or less. We began looking for people who grew things, whether they were oysters, or honey, or quail, or radishes, or herbs.
Fifteen years later, here we are with hundreds of resources — within that 200-mile footprint. Walk into our cooler, and I could tell you a story about each of those products, their family, their history, their story. Almost every single thing in that cooler is sourced from Alabama.
Do you have a hard time finding anything now?
The hardest thing to find is beef. Pigs, chickens, eggs, cheeses — all that's available. But good quality beef has been hard to fine. There are guys in Alabama starting to get going.
It's grown exponentially. There are lots of people out there who have organic gardens. They know how to grow it, but they don't know how to get it to market. The grocery stores don't buy that stuff anymore.
The big sea change for these people is getting access to local, independent restaurateurs. Not only will we buy it, we will pay a price high enough to sustain the farmer.
Then we put those people on our menus and say, "13 Mile oysters" or "Red Mountain Honey." We create awareness for those people so they can build a business selling to the general public.
The next thing is, they'll make it to the Pepper Place market or other markets on Saturdays. Farmers markets didn't used to exist to the extent they do now. The evolution of all this is developing community through food, which is a really powerful message. It's been happening very quietly, under the radar, for 15 years now.
Besides the restaurant, you also have a consulting business. How does that work?
I only do business with people and developers who are interested in embracing the development of community through food. Essentially, that means they're willing to have a restaurant like ours — committed to seasonal, regional food — to plant a garden, plant an orchard, start a CSA, have a farmers market on the weekend, have food festivals and symposiums, start a slow food movement. You get people to gather around food, for the enrichment of your life in that community. It's partly an educational process, partly good old-fashioned fun.
Developers are actually doing that?
Russell Lands on Lake Martin is very good at it. The folks at the Town of Hampstead in Montgomery are doing a really good job. (That's where the new farm-to-table restaurant Ham and High just opened up.)
The idea is much more inclusive than a golf course. You have a community garden that's the centerpiece of your town — a place that families go to grow vegetables together.
That's the most interesting and exciting evolution of what the independent restaurant community has done over the years. Typically, a developer would build a golf course and call Ruby Tuesday to be at the corner of Main and First.
Your wife is a pastry chef, and your sons — how old are they?
17 and 19.
Do they cook?
They worked in the restaurant for a number of years, and have no desire to be part of the business.
What do you cook at home?
Really simple stuff. The good news for us is that we have access to great food in the cooler. This time of year, we keep it simple. Heirloom tomatoes, local vegetables, fish, meat, whatever is in the cooler. We're like everybody else; on our days off, we don't want to spend four hours in the kitchen.
My advice to cooks is that you can prepare a good meal very quickly, without using processed foods, if you source good products. A few ears of corn, some local tomatoes, a piece of free-range chicken — you can have a good, quality meal in no time.
Celebrity chef dinnerWho: Chris Hastings of the Hot and Hot Fish Club, Birmingham
When: Tuesday at Garfrerick's Café, 655 Creekside Drive, Oxford, 256-831-0044
First course: Dave's Summer Salad (paired with Auvigue Macon-Solutre)
Second course: Grilled cobia filet with asparagus and clam vinaigrette (paired with Trenel Macon Rouge)
Third course: Barbecued beef short ribs on sweet corn succotash with cracklin' cornbread (paired with Unity Hill Cabernet Sauvignon)
Fourth course: White chocolate and raspberry bread pudding with raspberry coulis (paired with Tokaji from Hungary)
Price: $85 for four courses and wines, tax and gratuity included. Tickets on sale at Garfrerick's Café and Friends Natural Market.
Plus: The Hot and Hot Fish Club Cookbook will be available for purchase, and can be autographed.