The Upper Crust: Alabama’s Nationally Recognized Chefs
Meet the culinary personalities who put the state’s exceptional food in the national spotlight with prestigious awards and popular cookbooks.
Owner of three award-winning Birmingham restaurants — Highlands Bar and Grill, Bottega Restaurant and Café and Chez Fonfon — chef Frank Stitt is credited by many as a leader in Alabama’s rise to national culinary status. A native of Cullman, Ala., Stitt once worked at legendary restaurant Chez Panisse in San Francisco, as well as in kitchens throughout Paris. Stitt was named Best Chef in the Southeast by the James Beard Foundation in 2001, and has since received multiple nominations in the foundation's Outstanding Chef and Outstanding Restaurant categories. In 2007, he earned the Southern Foodways Alliance Lifetime Achievement Award, and Esquire magazine inducted him into its Restaurant Hall of Fame in 2011. The author of two cookbooks, Stitt frequently appears in national, regional and local publications, where he discusses his love of creating classic Southern cuisine with a European sensibility.
Though she’s the sister of legendary singer and songwriter Jimmy Buffett, Lucy Buffett has made a name for herself as a cook, host and restaurateur on Alabama’s Gulf Coast. Her restaurant, LuLu’s at Homeport Marina, has been serving soulful Southern dishes to beach-goers for more than a decade. Nearly 4,000 guests visit LuLu’s on an average day during the summer season. Her book, Crazy Sista Cooking, is in its second printing and features more than 120 Buffett family recipes like Sloppy Shrimp, Silver Queen Succotash and Heavenly Fried Crab Claws, in addition to recipes for the restaurant’s popular drinks including the Bama Breeze and LuLu's Painkiller.
Chef Chris Hastings and his wife, Idie, own Birmingham's Hot and Hot Fish Club, an intimate restaurant located in a historic building on the city's Southside. A graduate of Johnson and Wales Culinary School, Hastings worked at the Ritz Carlton in Atlanta, Birmingham's Highlands Bar and Grill and Bottega, and Lark Creek Inn in San Francisco before opening Hot and Hot in 1995. Known for its focus on seasonal ingredients, Hot and Hot has been the recipient of 11 consecutive Wine Spectator Awards of Excellence and in 1998 received the Robert Mondavi Culinary Award for Best New Restaurant. Hastings has received several regional Best Chef nominations from the James Beard Foundation and won the foundation's prestigious award for best chef in the South in May 2012. He is also frequently featured by national television programs and publications.
The great-grandson-in-law of legendary Alabama pit-master Big Bob Gibson, Decatur’s Chris Lilly has made a name for himself among barbecue's elite. Now the executive chef for Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q restaurants and head of the Big Bob Gibson Competition Cooking Team, Lilly is also the corporate spokesperson for Kingsford charcoal and author of Big Bob Gibson’s BBQ Book. Under Lilly's leadership, the competition team has won multiple state championship cook-offs, more than 10 world championships and has taken the Best Sauce title at the American Royal International Barbecue Sauce Contest. In 2011, Lilly's team was crowned World Champion at the annual Memphis in May competition.
Mobile native Wesley True is a graduate of New York's Culinary Institute of America and a veteran of some of Manhattan's most venerable restaurants, such as Aquavit, Bouley and Gordon Ramsey's Mesa Grill. After seven years in New York, True moved back to Mobile to open his own restaurant. He brought with him extensive fine-dining experience, a love of local ingredients and an affinity for French cooking techniques combined with contemporary, American style. In 2010, True won second place in the Great American Seafood Cook-off in New Orleans and in 2011 was a semifinalist for Best Chef in the South in the James Beard Foundation Awards. He currently owns and operates True Midtown Kitchen in Mobile, an upscale casual eatery packed with Southern charm.
James Boyce got his start at New York's famed Le Cirque, while earning his culinary degree at the Culinary Institute of America. After stints at The Phoenician and Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, he worked as executive chef at the Loews Coronado Bay Resort and Studio Restaurant in Southern California. The two-time Mobil Five Star award winner and James Beard semifinalist opened Cotton Row Restaurant in Huntsville in 2008 and has since been a regular on the “Today” show and in publications such as Martha Stewart Weddings, Cooking Light, Food & Wine and Men's Health. Boyce also owns Pane e Vino pizzeria and Commerce Kitchen, both in Huntsville.
James Lewis’s authentic Italian dishes — including house-made pastas, house-cured meats and wood-fired pizzas — earned him the honor of being named one of America’s best new chefs of 2011 by Food & Wine. As chef and owner of Bettola, a stylish, big-city spot in Birmingham, Lewis continues to return to Italy to study and source ingredients. He enhances imported ingredients with local products from Alabama farmers and artisans, as well as from other sources throughout the region. Before opening his own restaurant, Lewis honed his skills at the Plumed Horse in Saratoga, Calif., Winston's and Café Julien in Birmingham, and at Locanda di Bu and Antica Macelleria Cecchini butcher shop, both in Italy. Chef Lewis is also one of the few American members of the Associazione Pizzaiuoli Napoletani, an association that certifies pizzerias as authentically Neapolitan.