Discover Alabama’s Cuisine during The Year of Alabama Food

Does a location define its food, or does the food define its location?

While there is no right or wrong answer, Martie Duncan, of Martie Knows Parties and season eight of “Food Network Star,” believes that food and the place it comes from have always been synonymous.

Especially when it comes to her home state, Alabama.

“Music, movies and books have been inspired by our food and food culture. If someone says ‘Fried Green Tomatoes,’ you automatically think of Alabama. We are so proud of our food culture. It’s how we provide insight into how we live. We even promote it subconsciously.”

“My friends from around the world, who have never been to Alabama, are dying to make the trip simply because of the food,” she continues. “They’ve heard my stories of creamy shrimp and grits, with the shrimp just pulled from the Gulf; smoky BBQ pork piled high on a toasted bun; huge, fluffy biscuits slathered with sausage gravy; massive mile-high pies; and of course, the local favorite – meat and three.”

While Birmingham-native Duncan points out Alabama food is homey and comforting (“it’s simple and it’s family”), she says don’t like that fool you, though.

“We are a culinary mecca with many James Beard Foundation winners and nominees within our borders. Come to Alabama and taste for yourself.”

And this year is a perfect time to do so, since the state is celebrating The Year of Alabama Food.”  No matter what part of the state you visit, you are sure enjoy a cornucopia of flavors through a variety of dishes.

But don’t take my word for it. Meet some of the chefs who, along with their restaurants, have helped turned Alabama into a strong culinary destination.

James Boyce, Boyce Restaurant Concepts

There are many reasons to visit Huntsville. The city is home to such places as the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, the Botanical Gardens and the Harrison Brothers, the oldest hardware store in the state.

And then there’s the food.

Over the past few years, Huntsville has developed quite a buzz among true foodies and most of it is due to chef James Boyce.

The 20-year culinary veteran, whose curriculum vitae includes such places as the highly-acclaimed Le Cirque in New York City, Phoenician in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, was encouraged by someone he had met in the area to come out and visit Huntsville.

Four years later, Boyce and his family have found home. “Here we are, and we love it here,” says Boyce.

In 2008, he opened Cotton Row (recipient of Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence and AAA Diamond rated), followed by Pano e Vino in 2009 and Commerce Kitchen in 2010. Operating under the Boyce Restaurant Concepts, each restaurant provides a different culinary experience. At Cotton Row, you can expect as Boyce describes as “gourmet American/Southern classic, with a mix of French and Southern California influences.” He points out that Pano e Vino is “a full service Italian bistro,” while Commerce he calls a “glorified meat and three.”

“Our interpretation of a southern experience is a little different from other places,” he says.”

“Not sure if we have redefined southern cuisine, but hopefully we have accomplished opening eyes to different styles of food.”

While his menus change with seasons, he says there are classic dishes at Cotton Row he would consider as favorites. On his must-try list includes the Braised Meyer Ranch Beef Short Ribs (included on the 2012 edition of the “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die”), featuring a local twist – Anson Mill grits- and also served with balsamic portobello mushroom, herb salad and provencal tomato. Another entree is the Seared Maine Diver Sea Scallop complete with amish field bean cassoulet, baby tomatoes, collard greens and ramp cream sauce.

When is comes to dessert, Boyce is quick to answer, “Peanut Butter and Jelly Phyllo.” This treat, highlighted as a famous dish with “The Year of Alabama Food,” includes milk chocolate ice cream, salty peanuts and strawberry compote.

Gary Garner, owner and chef, Garrett’s Restaurant

‘Art of Food’ is more than a tagline at Garrett’s Restaurant in Montgomery, it describes how the overall experience at the restaurant engages all of the senses.

“When you provide top-notch service within an unique atmosphere and enjoy great food, you’ve pulled off the perfect dining experience,” comments Gary Garner, owner and chef. “ At Garrett’s, it’s known as the ‘art of food.’”

“We’re different. The restaurant is unique for Montgomery.”

The phrase is also a nod to the food presentation as well. Garner, a self-taught chef, taps into his artistry skills to create eye-appealing dishes. As for the dishes’ palate-appeal, he utilizes as much local and regional products available.

“The duck and the lamb come from local resources. When it comes to seafood dishes, I tend to use everything from the Gulf coast.”

Referring to his dishes as “traditional southern food with a twist,” items found on the include grilled Gulf Shrimp with Crabmeat Remoulade sauce and Flash-Fried Oysters that Garner says are “crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside,” topped with special horseradish sauce (“I am known for my sauces.”) There’s also Grilled Pork Loin Chop served with

smoked Gouda macaroni and cheese, sautéed collard greens and a pancetta Tabasco beurre sauce, and Grilled Duck Breast over butternut squash and wild mushroom risotto with Bing cherry soy glaze and tempura haricot verts to try as well.

Do save room for dessert, because there is the Pecan Pie Martini (included in the 2010 edition of “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die”) served in a martini glass. Garner calls it a cocktail and dessert in one. One of its many highlights is the Jack Daniels ice cream. For a little heat, try his Jalapeño Truffle Filled Chocolate Soufflé (recognized as a famous dish with “The Year of Alabama Food”), which he says is a perfect blend between sweet and heat.

Bill Schleusner, chef and co-owner, Rawls Restaurant

Every Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, chef Bill Schleusner is on a mission. Visiting different farmers markets, he is searching out the freshest, locally-grown items to use in his dishes at Rawls Restaurant in Enterprise.

Farm-to-table is more than a trend with the Birmingham-native who graduated from Culinary Institute Academy, it’s his way of cooking.

“I believe in preparing food in the old-school way, the way food was meant to be done -simple, seasoned well and cooked properly. It’s not meant to confuse people.”

“I don’t like to manipulate the food so much to where people can’t recognize what they are eating.”

Trained and worked in restaurants in New York City and Birmingham, Schleusner is all about fresh products and ingredients.

“I don’t like using cans or frozen items. You just don’t know where it came from.”

Rawls Restaurant’s menu reads like a “who’s-who” in local/regional products. Listed among the appetizers is the grilled Chilton County peaches (grown in Alabama) with shaved Tennessee Country Ham (courtesy of Benton’s), Tupelo honey (comes from Florida) and greens, or the Fried Apalachicola oysters served with lemon and horseradish-tartar sauce.

On the entree side, there’s the shrimp and grits with Conecuh sausage (produced in Alabama), which Schleusner says is prepared in more of a Louisiana-style; and the sautéed grouper (proudly from the Gulf) accompanied by a mix of vegetables.

Desserts follow the same rule as well – chose among the Carver Cup that features Sessions peanuts (produced in Alabama) and the Chilton County Peach Bread Pudding with vanilla ice cream.

“We offer people a choice,” says Schleunser. “ They go to a chain or spend a little extra money and enjoy a nice meal, centered around the finest and freshest local and regional products.”

images credits: (top left) Beef & Reef, Garrett’s Restaurant; (top right) Lamb, Rawls Restaurant; (top middle right) PB&J Phyllo, Cotton Row/Boyce Restaurant Concepts; (middle left) Shrimp appetizer, Garrett’s Restaurant; (middle right) Pecan Pie Martini, Garrett’s Restaurant; (bottom left) Grouper, Rawls Restaurant

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