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by Rob Trucks

November 20, 2012

Chris Hastings: The Rhapsody Interview/Menu

by Rob Trucks  |  November 20, 2012

Every two weeks, genius-level Q&A artist Rob Trucks, whose work has appeared everywhere from McSweeney's to the Village Voice to Deadspin, will interview a public person of interest -- authors, actors, athletes, political wonks, etc. -- about their relationship with music. To gear you up for Thanksgiving, we've got celebrated Alabama chef Chris Hastings, who below offers us a complete 15-course menu, complete with playlist. Enjoy.

In November, a young man's fancy -- and a young woman's fancy, and pretty much everyone's fancy -- turns to food. And as we come to the close of 2012, it begs mention that Chef Chris Hastings has had a very good year. In his first-ever Iron Chef challenge, Hastings took down host Bobby Flay (the secret ingredient: sausage); later that spring, after what felt like yearly nominations, he picked up his first James Beard Award for Best Chef in the South.

Except for a two-year sojourn to Northern California during the rise of that region's farm-to-table movement, Hastings has lived in the South since culinary school, and for the past 17 years he, along with his wife, Idie, has owned the Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham, Ala., the city where they initially met. Together, in one of the first farm-to-table restaurants east of the Mississippi River, they serve not only the titular fresh fish, but French/Southern/Californian-influenced pork, rabbit, chicken and duck dishes from an open kitchen. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Chef Hastings is also the author of the Hot and Hot Fish Club Cookbook. Earlier this month we talked about food, a sense of place and, of course, music.

You grew up in Charlotte, N.C., but the first line of your bio lets me know that you discovered your "appreciation for food" in the lowcountry of South Carolina while on family vacations. What happened there that ended up fueling a lifelong pursuit?

That one actually has a kind of a DNA origin. Pawleys Island, S.C., is that place where I spent time as a young man, being the creek boy for the family, you know, seining for shrimp and catching crabs and gigging flounder and doing all that kind of stuff. The longer and deeply important story is that my great-great-great grandfather, Hugh Fraser, came from Edinburgh, Scotland, and he established a rice plantation [on Pawleys Island] 180 years ago. And over the summer vacation, everyone would go to the islands where there was a good breeze and you could get away from the mosquitoes and the heat. And the oldest sons of the families would kind of be the creek boys, and you'd go out and you'd catch crabs and shrimp.

So I had this kind of DNA of being drawn to the salt marsh, drawn to this idea of going out and catching your dinner. That was my job in the summertime. And there was nothing I relished more than just being on that salt marsh. You know, high tide and a full moon, the cackle of the marsh hens and the beautiful color of the blue crabs. I mean, for me that was just very, very, very powerful. And I didn't know it at the time, I just felt it. I didn't know where it would take me. I just knew I was very connected to that place in a very real, visceral way.

So certainly that relationship, being there in the salt marsh, catching that food, bringing it back to our family table, all of us eating together, and then getting the local produce: the tomatoes and the corn, the field peas, and the okra. You've got this huge spread of all this great food, and it just seemed like normal, kind of everyday life as a kid, but when you become a chef you realize how real and profound that you're in a place, you're in a season, you're in a moment with your family, your aunts and uncles and friends, and you're breaking bread together, and all the worry of the day disappears at that moment that you all gather at the table. And as an adult, you begin to realize how fortunate you were, and the real magic and the hope of that. And the more I began to think about what I wanted to do, how I was going to reflect my ideals about food and cuisine and dining, that's always the kind of bedrock, the center of the way I think about what I want to articulate in our restaurant. That people cross our threshold and the door closes behind them, and it's a place of solace to gather with your friends, so everything on the outside of that door matters not for a few hours. All that matters is your friends breaking bread, enjoying a delicious meal and just taking a moment to, you know, breathe in a very complicated life.

Before we even started talking, I felt like there was a good chance that geography -- a sense of place -- was going to be a part of this discussion.

Always. Always.

So while we're on the geography portion of the program, why Birmingham?

Well, you know, like most stories that men will tell about how they got to a place, a woman generally is involved. And I was dating a girl in Atlanta, and she had friends in Birmingham, and she wanted to take the weekend to go visit. And she also wanted us to go eat at this great little restaurant that had opened a few years earlier called the Highlands Bar and Grill. And so we did. We met a lot of her friends, had a terrific meal at Highlands, and I got to meet Frank [Stitt]. And serendipitously, without realizing it, you know, before I got there, Frank was looking for a sous chef. And so he asked me, "What's going on with [the Ritz-Carlton in Atlanta]? Are you happy there? Are you looking for something new? I'm in the market for a sous chef." And we got to talking, and one thing led to another, and I wound up moving to Birmingham. The girl I was dating at the time, she went to Charleston to go to culinary school, and I never saw her again. And I met my wife of 25 years in Birmingham not long after I moved.

But you don't stay in Birmingham. You go across the country and then come back.

Yeah, but what's really important about the going away part is that, again, back to geography, I moved to not just any place to go somewhere else to work, I go to San Francisco. And in the late '80s, farm-to-table being practiced by Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower was becoming a larger movement. It was more than just a handful of kitchens. It was the mantra for any great restaurant. It hadn't migrated east as much, but at that time, you know, part of my role there was to go to the farmers markets and the farms, and meet farmers and oystermen and fishermen and cheese makers, and go to visit apiaries and get the product from the people. So, for me, it was a huge light bulb moment. I instinctively understood from going from the creek to get a crab to going from a kitchen to the farm, you know, and the proximity to the coast was great for all the seafood.

It was just, "Wow!" So that's how you get away from the mainline distribution truck. You develop a network of relationships with human beings. You meet their wives, or their husbands, and their children. You get to know them on a personal level, and you understand their disproportionate passion for what it is that they do. And in doing that, you enrich your life in many, many ways, but you also get access to incredible products. But all these people become an extension of your family and your kitchen and your story. And so when you get to go put these things in front of guests at the restaurant, you're going to tell this really great story about a place: that town, that city, this farm, or these people that, you know, raised these chickens or goats or pigs. And it was the epiphany of that whole concept that happened there. It tied together, for me, everything. Everything came clear there.

You talked about instinct and how Pawleys Island, the marsh is an internal thing. And then you talked about the light bulb moment, the epiphany of Northern California. Does your appreciation of music come from something learned, or is it formed more by instinct?

For me, it's more of an emotional response. I'm kind of an omnivore. I like all kinds of music. It's like when I taste it, I know it. If I put it in my mouth and I taste it, and it's like a "Wow" moment, and it's delicious, it freaks me out. You know, my ear is the same way with music. It doesn't matter if it's classical music or rockabilly or rock 'n' roll or hip-hop. I like to listen to it all. And when you hear it and you like it, you know it. Just like when you taste it. If you like it, then it's meaningful. You know it.

And the way geography fits in is that you find yourself in a place, and if you care about being in a place and if you have an intellectual curiosity about a place, whether it's the South or more specifically, you know, a region in the South, or wherever you happen to be, it doesn't matter. Pick anywhere. And you drill down a little bit. You try to find out what's going on in that community. As a creative person, I look at things like art and I look at things like music and I look at things like food. I look at things like, "Who are the craftsmen in that community?" And I search them out, just kind of foraging around to find things, because to me, a community is made extraordinarily interesting through those people. If you find a community that's got an interesting music history, or an art community, or craftsmen that are really on the cutting edge of design or whatever, it just, for me, intellectually, that makes it more curious. So geography has something to do with it.

When's the last time you experienced a "wow" moment with music?

It was just recently, actually. I was up in Florence, Ala. I was there cooking for Billy Reid. He's a top designer in the country, and he's from Alabama. Again, another part of this creative class, people who like to hang out together, know each other. And he has this great party every year in Florence, a night of drinking and eating, and then you go to a concert afterwards. And the Alabama Shakes were there, and it was the first time I had a chance to hear them live. And, you know, listening to music live is always just more visceral. The music just kind of runs through you. It's different than listening to it on the radio or at home or whatever. And they just blew me away.

The few professional kitchens I've been in appear to contain enough clatter and cacophony that I'm not sure music has a place. But is there music in the Hot and Hot dining room?

Yes, but we've got a small, fairly boisterous restaurant. And so there is music, and we like to diversify, do different things, but the reality is it's not food church. So with the ambient sound of the guests, it tends to drown it out. I guess if you asked my diners, "What's the music they play at the Hot & Hot?" They'd go, "I have no clue, because I can't hear it." We have, also, an exposed kitchen. And you're right about the kitchen. I mean, some people really think music in a kitchen during prep and work time is OK. And I'm not opposed to it, other than the fact that I need my people's full attention. I need them totally dialed into what I'm trying to teach them and show them and get them to focus on. You know, music has a great capacity to carry you away. And I don't need anybody carried away when I'm trying to get their attention.

It's been a big year for you. You're one-for-one in Iron Chef challenges. You're the reigning James Beard Award winner for the Best Chef in the South. And for a lot of people that would be the first line of their obituary. What do you do next? Does 2012 give you a chance to rest and regroup, or do you intend to use it as more of a springboard?

You know, it's funny. All those things happened kind of congruently with a real kind of reinvention. I started the process about two years ago of really rethinking a lot of things about the restaurant, about the creative process, and really trying to, you know, grind on it and think about it and reinvent it, and just reach deep for some new energy and some new thinking and some new ideas. I did a lot of traveling, because I was also doing the cookbook tour, and I was seeing a lot of stuff and talking to a lot of interesting people, and so we have just kind of morphed from what we used to be years ago to this new energy and new kind of vibrancy and creative direction that we're working on. It's a very exciting time. And then all of a sudden this happens, and you have to ask yourself the question. Yes, we want to leverage this moment. We don't want to let this moment pass without, you know, springboarding from those great accomplishments into new opportunities. Most people would give their eye teeth to be in my position, so I need to not rest on my laurels. This is another moment that we shall not let pass.

DO YOUR THING, CHEF

Chris Hastings' Exclusive Food, Music & Libation Pairing for Rhapsody

1st Course: Amuse

Calico Bay scallops from Apalachicola compressed with satsuma, limequat and Calabrese chili oil

Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, "Do Your Thing"

2010 AlbariƱo Rias Baixas, Spain

2nd Course:

Bon Secour "Point au Pines" oysters with pedals from the past; Meyer lemon

Billy Joe Shaver, "Georgia on a Fast Train"

Aubry NV champagne

3rd Course:

Bulldozer lobster salad with heirloom cherry tomatoes, green beans, new dug potatoes, olives, capers and saffron vinaigrette

Hayes Carll, "Kmag Yoyo"

2010 Francois Servin Chablis

4th Course:

Three steamed blue crabs with melted butter

John Mayer, "Queen of California"

16-oz. PBR

5th Course:

Hot and Hot tomato salad with field peas, sweet corn-fried okra and smoked bacon

Allman Brothers, "Statesboro Blues"

2011 Claude Riffault Chablis

6th Course:

A Forager's Walk, an all-Alabama experience

John Lee Hooker, "Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang"

Bulleit rye with sassafras and lemon

7th Course:

Homemade tagliatelle with guanciale, rapini and parmesan

Ike and Tina Turner, "Proud Mary"

2009 La Vite Lucente Toscana

8th Course:

Rabbit pot pie

Bill Withers, "Use Me"

Truck Stop Honey Brown Ale, Back Forty Beer Co., Gadsden, Ala.

9th Course:

Whole-roasted woodcock with hunter's giblet sauce and black truffle

Townes Van Zandt, "Loretta"

2007 Clape Cornas, Rhone Valley

10th Course:

Pork belly with pigskin noodles, red mustard greens & ham-hock broth

Steely Dan, "My Old School"

2009 Dr. Loosen Riesling Kabinett Erdener Treppchen, Mosel, Germany

11th Course:

Asado of Border Springs lamb, offal only please ... sweetbreads, heart, kidney and liver with lemon olive oil, herbs and sea salt

Guy Clark, "L.A. Freeway"

2001 Lopez De Heredia Reserva "Vina Tondonia," Rioja, Spain

12th Course:

Sassafras sorbet with homemade bitters

John Prine & Iris Dement, "In Spite of Ourselves"

Cocchi Americano Vermouth on the rocks with a twist

13th Course

Persimmon verrine with golden kiwi

Rolling Stones, "Gimme Shelter"

2009 Chateau Roumieu Lacoste Sauternes Bordeaux

14th Course:

Chocolate and pine extract mousse with verbena meringue, chocolate streusel, buttermilk granita

Dwight Yoakam, "I'll Be Gone"

Lustau East India Sherry, Spain

15th Course:

Assorted Southern cheeses

House of Freaks, "Rocking Chair"

1994 Fonseca Porto

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