Chris Hastings has beaten Bobby Flay on Iron Chef. This year, he won a James Beard Award. On any weeknight, his restaurant is packed with diners who look over the shoulders of his kitchen crew as they cook right in front of their eyes. But Hastings isn’t cooking in Manhattan or Chicago or San Francisco.
He owns Hot and Hot Fish Club, in Birmingham, Alabama, and he’s in the forefront of a legion of chefs across the Deep South who are turning out some of the finest food in the United States. In turn, these top chefs and their restaurant owners are directly linked to the wealth that is resulting from the auto plants in their midst.
The Luxury South existed in pockets before the auto industry arrived. There have always been elite schools, like Old Miss, Vanderbilt and Tulane, and sprawling homes and plantations everywhere from Savannah to Mobile. But the critical mass of car plants has provided new opportunities for the South to attain its own luxury status.
The evidence is most visible in two places – Greenville, S.C., near BMW’s only American plant, and in the Birmingham area, where Mercedes-Benz built its sprawling factory in Vance, AL.
Turn down Main Street in Greenville, and you’ll find an array of bars, restaurants and hotels that would seem right at home in any upscale American city. They sit just a short walk from Fluor Field, where the minor league Greenville Drive play in a stadium modeled after Fenway Park.
Among the team’s long list of corporate sponsors is the BMW Performance Driving School, which is just across the road from the gleaming white factory that BMW opened here in 1994.BMW owners from across the country can take delivery of their vehicles in Greenville, and get lessons in how to drive them. They can dine in BMW’s cafe, buy souvenir shot glasses and water bottles in the BMW gift shop, and take a tour of the factory, which has become famous from BMW’s ads.
A number of those BMW customers have found their way to the collection of restaurants owned by Carl Sobocinski, the unquestioned king of the local food scene, who is a chief beneficiary of the Luxury South.
His stable ranges from his white table cloth restaurant, Devereaux’s, to Soby’s, a bustling bar and grill, to The Lazy Goat, his attempt at a Mediterranean restaurant.
Sobocinski, who opened his first restaurant at age 25 in 1992, is one of those restaurant owners who his patrons greet by name and in many cases thank for investing in their town. “It was dead down here,” John Bauka, a Soby’s patron declared, unasked, when he came up to shake Sobocinski’s hand after a meal. In those days, only two blocks near the city’s Hyatt Hotel were at all lively.
“Everything down here was kind of boarded up,” Sobocinski said. “It was huge, in how fast it went” after BMW arrived. “We had Michelin, we had General Electric, we had Fluor, but they didn’t bring the suppliers that we have here now.”
More than 100 other companies have opened up since BMW arrived, bringing a flood of newcomers to the area. “They were bringing people in, I’d meet them, and all of a sudden they’re calling and saying, we’re bringing in some important people, we need a quiet place,’ he said. “I was in the right place at the right time. I always say, I’d rather be lucky than good.”
The growth has bothered some locals: “You’ll have people say, why are we giving away the farm? And others who say this is the way to go,” Sobocinski says.
In Birmingham, it would be difficult to find anyone who thinks Mercedes-Benz has been anything but a plus to the community, although the investment didn’t come without risks. In 1993, the state put together a then-staggering $253 million incentive package to land the plant, but then was in danger of not being able to come up with the money. Help arrived from the state’s pension fund, and the Mercedes project was able to go forward.
Now, Mercedes is the centerpiece of aggressive growth for Birmingham and a further enhancement for Tuscaloosa, which already boasts the University of Alabama’s lavish campus. In the years since Mercedes arrived, Birmingham has become a smaller version of Atlanta, minus the crippling traffic. It was already the financial capital of Montgomery, but now it has become a bustling, medium sized city that is the center of the southern auto industry.
In another era, it might seem ludicrous that a chef like Hastings would beat out four competitors from New Orleans to win the Beard Award as the best chef in the South. Not any more.
It only takes a few minutes in his restaurant to understand why. Hot and Hot opens at 5:30 p.m., and on many nights, it is packed by 6 p.m. Hastings is often at the door, in his chef’s coat, to say hello to guests, sign his cookbook, and deal with special requests. There’s no camouflaging what’s happening in the kitchen, because the restaurant is essentially built around an open kitchen.
Dinners who sit at the chef’s counter have an up close view of their meals being prepared, as well as all the other steps that go into each dish. They can watch cooks using blow torches and painstakingly sautéing peaches. None of this is frenetic: in fact, there is a sense of politeness, camaraderie and calm to the proceedings that put lie to the tension of “Kitchen Nightmares.”
After directing a nine-course, small bites dinner for me that included three desserts, home made rye bread and biscuits, an amazing gazpacho and the best soft-shelled crab I’d ever eaten, Hastings took me on a tour.
It didn’t take long, because the restaurant has just one tiny area where the locally grown fruits and vegetables are prepared, as well as the walk-in refrigerators where meat and fish are stored. The quality is outstanding from the minute produce arrives, as I discovered when I ate one of the heirloom tomatoes he gave me to take home.
Although he has just this one restaurant, Hastings’ influence spreads out in the food world well beyond Birmingham. And, he’s not the only chef in town who’s transcended the local scene. One of the city’s other standout chefs, Frank Stitt, has won similar praise for his Highlands Bar and Grill. Like Sobocinski in Greenville, Stitt has his own collection, ranging from French bistro to Italian cafe.
The flourishing Birmingham restaurant scene right in sync with the atmosphere at the Mercedes plant, with its vast, sparkling clean aisles.
As in Greenville, Mercedes has gone all out to court its customers, who can visit a museum, take a tour, and shop for souvenirs, from picnic baskets to golf shirts and tennis balls with the Mercedes logo. It’s truly a luxury experience, unlike anything imaginable before the auto industry got here. And the impact is being shared throughout the community, as well.
Micheline Maynard is a writer and author based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She previously ran the public media project Changing Gears, and was Detroit bureau chief for the New York Times.
Hot and Hot Fish Club, 2180 11th Court South, Birmingham, AL 205-933-5474 for reservations (it does not accept them online)
Soby’s, 207 S. Main Street, Greenville, S.C., 864-232-7007 (the restaurant accepts reservations online)