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Networking: Chris Hastings

Chef/co-owner, Hot and Hot Fish Club, Birmingham, Ala.

By James Wright
August 01, 2013

Chris Hastings has some nerve. The chef and co-owner of Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham, Ala., went to the 11th Annual Big Apple Barbecue Block Party in New York and prepared — get this — Gulf seafood. As one of the few chefs not pushing the pork that day in early June, he made a big impression on the big-city folks with his carefully crafted Southern cuisine. He shared his culinary talents at the invitation of Southern Living magazine, but something about the Big Apple made him feel right at home. “There was an ocean of pork there. Total saturation. It was a pork moment,” he says with a laugh, before catching a flight back home. Even with the scent of slow-cooked ribs wafting through Madison Square Park, Hastings’ grouper and shrimp dishes were turning heads. “People lost their minds,” he says. “You give people good fish, they’ll like it.” 

Hastings, 50, should know — the restaurant he and his wife Idie founded 18 years ago has been earning plaudits for its fresh local seafood (and yes, in-house butchered pork) ever since. Last year the James Beard Foundation named him best chef in the South, an honor he has “aspired to all my culinary professional life. You gotta keep your brand alive and stay relevant and the Beard Foundation allows us, with that award, to be relevant — besides the fact that the food is contemporary and delicious.”

How exactly did you end up at that pork party?  

It was 100 percent pork, nothing but pork, except Alabama seafood. I’m on the Alabama Seafood Commission, which partnered with Southern Living to provide a big oyster bar in the “no bone zone,” a place for everything not porky. I set up shop, serving all manner of seafood. I was out on different stages for the magazine and for Ikea, cooking and passing out samples. 

What was the reaction to the grouper and shrimp?  

What happens when you put that kind of food in front of people? They light up. When they taste it for the first time, beautifully prepared with summer vegetables and a vinaigrette — those are very summery, light, delicious dishes.

Why is Southern cuisine catching on across the country? 

I think people understand there’s a whole world of food beyond the whitewashing of Southern food — fried chicken, collard greens and grits. There’s an interesting and diverse tapestry of cuisine styles, just within the world of barbecue. Go state to state, you’ll find cultures that have come together through different immigrants over the last 250 years. There are places with distinct culinary histories. Not all Southern food is the same, it’s just not. 

You have ‘gigged’ flounder on the menu. What is that?  

Have you seen Poseidon’s trident? Imagine that attached to a 9-foot pole. When the flounder is inshore, from 10 at night till daybreak, fishermen will put a light on their boat and slowly troll the really shallow water and you can just stick the flounder. That is called gigging. The goal is you hit it behind the gills and don’t tear up the flesh. The good giggers do it really well. 

What’s the story behind your restaurant’s name?   

Hot and Hot was a men’s club founded in South Carolina in 1840 by my great-great-great grandfather, Hugh Fraser. They enjoyed any opportunity to gather in the salt marshes for shrimp and crabs and oysters and have these legendary meals. They wrote passionately in their diaries about the importance of places to go and escape, to leave it all behind for a minute. Solace and escape are notions that appealed to me in many ways. That’s what we try to provide.

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