In 1995, Chris Hastings and his wife and business partner, Idie, opened the Hot and Hot Fish Club in an unassuming building just south of downtown Birmingham, Alabama. Every facet of the restaurant, from its menu to its décor, has been carefully considered, and delivers artisanal – and distinctively Southern – creations for the palate and the other senses.
I saw on the James Beard Foundation website that your mother gave you a copy of Beard’s American Cookery when you were 12. Can you take us back a moment and tell us how this all began?
It was a birthday gift, and she knew how much I enjoyed it. We were close, so I spent a fair amount of time hanging in the kitchen with my mom just because, you know, that’s where I liked to be. Without realizing it, in those moments, I developed kind of a comfort level with being around food and cooking and just being in a kitchen, enjoying the whole process, the smells, the sounds, and the tasting, and the discussion about food, because there was always discussion about food. So from an early age, I was just exposed to the happiness of food, the joy of food, and the hope of what food can do for people generally, whether it’s family or friends. Food has magic like that.
Let’s fast-forward. You were nominated four times for a James Beard Foundation award. You were nominated a fifth time and won Best Chef of the South in 2012.
We worked really hard for that. We’ve been open 18 years, and I had been cooking for 30 years, so it kind of came late in life relative to a lot of people.
And then you beat Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America. Do you think you had the upper hand because the special ingredient was sausage? It’s such a Southern ingredient.
Of course I had the upper hand. Bobby Flay just didn’t realize it. He figured it was going to be the easiest day of his life: “I’m going against this guy from Birmingham, Alabama; how tough is this day going to be?” And then, you know, he hit a buzz saw.
He burned his sausage. How could he do that?
Trust me, it’s a lot of pressure. It’s still a competition. It’s still one hour.
A huge part of Iron Chef America is plating, and for the show Alabama potter Tena Payne designed plates in organic shapes and warm earth tones, much like those featured in your restaurant. Why did you and your team want to bring craft to the competition?
A big part of who we are every day is the pottery and our relationship with other craftsmen. We were the first to bring two things to the Iron Chef Kitchen Stadium: Our own plates made for the show – and moonshine.
At most restaurants, food is served on white plates; but not at your restaurant.
It’s part of the art of it all. I kind of get a little bored with all white plates, quite frankly. They’re all square, rectangular, round.
Tell us about the other art featured in the restaurant.
We designed the chairs and had them made by a local blacksmith. That hutch [pointing] we designed and had made locally. There’s a hutch in the back. There’s the hostess stand. There’s the harvest table. For all of those things, we worked directly with local craftsmen to create a look and a feel that we wanted the restaurant to represent.
But it also represents an extension of our philosophy about “food of place,” being in a place and experiencing the flavors of those places. The extension of that is the craftsmen of this place.
So how does the restaurant represent Birmingham?
The city has a great history of metalwork, so finding great craftsmen to design and make all of our chairs and barstools here – not all of them but most of them – was a cool and fun process. The same with the woodworking community; we’ve got a great woodworking community. And we work with a potter, of course, Tena Payne of Earthborn Pottery. It’s a real privilege to be able to work with Tena and her team. We can go in the studio with some drawings. We can do a design charrette, where we go in and mold and form and think through our plates. It’s a fun process.
And what about the South? How is it manifested in the restaurant?
Purveyors are really important to cooking, right? Our only hope of doing great food is accessing great products from purveyors, whether they’re an oysterman, shrimper, farmer, pig farmer, raise chickens, or have an area where they raise local honey. That’s the only chance we have at having great food. And we introduce our guests to these people through conversation at the table about who the farmer is, who the oysterman is, who the fisherman is, and they are named on our menu, et cetera, et cetera.
The craftsmen who helped us curate this energy and this look and this feel of this restaurant are a part of that conversation, too, because you’re experiencing a place not only in your mouth, but also in where you sit and what you’re looking at. And how that energy fills that space is really part of the overall experience of this restaurant.
This restaurant tells a story. Do you think of yourself as a storyteller?
We promote the culture of storytelling. That said, you don’t want to make the mistake in a restaurant of telling a long yarn. People come here from all over the world. So you have to know how to tell them about this place in a concise, passionate way while you’re at the table and not interfere with their dining experience.
That’s part of the experience. Because you can get good food anywhere.
Getting more than a meal here is what we do. We want you to understand the people who have provided the food and who they are. We want you to understand our philosophy of food
of season and food of place and the hope of food. We want to introduce you to the different craftsmen who made up this overall experience – whether it’s the potter, the blacksmith, or the woodworker.
You’re also known for your handmade lapel pins and hatpins that you fashion from feathers and hawthorns.
It’s a hobby, and I get calls from time to time about them. I started it as something I did for friends. I’m a big outdoorsman, love to hunt and fish.
So what do you do as a thank-you to people who have taken you to really cool, fun places and allowed you to, you know, enjoy some down time?
As somebody who is a creative person, I would like to give them something I create.
Monique Fields is a folk-art lover and writer in Alabama.