The city of Birmingham is teeming with culinary talent. From the national spotlight of such award-winning, decades-old establishments like Highlands Bar & Grill and Hot & Hot Fish Club to newer, stellar standouts like Le Fresca (whose pizza was named by Food & Wine Magazine as the best in the state) and wine-merchants-cum-tapas-bars (such as Aviné and Golden Age), the Magic City knows a thing or two about good food. Check out our behind-the-scenes peek at a few notables and you’ll quickly see what makes this place so rich in all things food.
The Cool Kids: Bendy’s Cookies & Cream
When your wedding reception features homemade cookies and milk, you may be on to something. When you develop recipes for cookbooks at Oxmoor House (now Meredith Food Studios), you realize your life’s work might involve ingredients like sugar, cream, and eggs. And when your first “child” is a food truck, you may have found your calling. Ben and Wendy Treadwell are those people. As the owners of Bendy’s Cookies & Cream in Cahaba Heights (and new parents to Josie), the pair has gone from daydreaming about making people happy with food to executing that reality. The journey may not have been easy, but it sure has been sweet.
Ice cream and cookies! What makes Bendy’s so craveable?
We make everything from scratch. We cook, spin, and churn everything we serve. We’re proud of our hits like our Cookie Butter, which is our signature sweet cream ice cream with a tasty Biscoff cookie swirl.
Any creations that missed the mark?
Well, there was the Mint Chocolate Chip that we wanted to have a natural green color so we tried adding avocado. We’ve since perfected that flavor. And it isn’t green now. We also had to tweak our Peach Cobbler ice cream. When we folded in chunks of cobbler into the ice cream, they froze like bricks! Now we add in housemade peach jam and cinnamon pie crust pieces.
If 2020 was a dessert, what would it look like?
We would make a sundae with our brownie cookie (a brownie inside two chocolate chip cookies), scoops of Coffee and Sweet Cream ice creams, hot fudge sauce, crumbled Oreos, sprinkles, whipped cream, and a cherry on top. The concoction would probably be called “The Kitchen Sink” since “everything, but the kitchen sink” was thrown at us last year.
Bar-B-Que and Bendy’s?
Sure! Why not? We are located next door to Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint, and we think we complement each other very well. It is great that you can grab dinner from Martin’s and come see us for dessert, all in one space. The patio area is the perfect place to hang out with friends and family.
We live in Bluff Park, and one of our go-to spots is Mr. P’s Deli where the Jeffro and Muffaletta sandwiches are our favorite choices. And as new parents, we crave caffeine – the cold brew coffee at O’Henry’s is always a good idea.
The Breakout Stars: Roscoe Hall & Emily Nabors Hall
The phrase “play with your food” is typically preceded by the word “don’t.” For Emily Nabors Hall and her husband Roscoe Hall, however, no admonishment is needed. Food is a medium in which these two creatives actively work and play. She created the much-lauded chocolate chip Breakup Cookie, while he was most recently featured on Bravo TV’s Top Chef: Portland. She also works in recipe-testing and food-styling, while he favors painting to express himself outside the confines of the kitchen. Together, they are parents to Ruby, age 6, and Eli, age 4.
Emily: I majored in sociology at Samford, but on a whim, I took a cooking class and fell in love with it. After graduation, I worked at the Crisis Center, but on the side, I made shortbread cookies. I longed for a way to make a living in the food world, without restaurant hours. Making Breakup Cookies for Church Street Coffee & Books allowed me to do that. I also began testing and developing recipes for Southern Living and Cooking Light.
Roscoe: My first gig was with Bottega when I was 18. I’ve been a working chef/cook and visual artist for the past 23 years.
Emily: In late 2020, I started selling the dough for Breakup Cookies to my family and friends, but it quickly grew into something way bigger. I’ve known Mary Drennan and Tiffany Vickers Davis of NOURISH for years, so when they started selling and shipping products from other Southern makers, I decided to try it. Locally, you can also buy Breakup Cookie dough at Farmstand by Stone Hollow Farmstead at Pepper Place.
Roscoe: Even thouigh I was eliminated from Top Chef, it has brought many new opportunities my way. I still cook with many of my chef buds from the show.
Are your kids open-minded about food?
Emily: They are your typical picky eaters. There are a few raw veggies they’ll eat without complaint; we consider that a win.
Roscoe: I do try to introduce them to food from other cultures by adding things like Nigerian or Jamaican spices.
What do you take to dinner at a friend’s house (besides Breakup Cookies)?
Emily: I like a pasta salad that actually involves salad—a mix that is equal parts gemelli pasta and punchy arugula. From there, it is kind of “choose your own adventure” with ingredients—an herb vinaigrette, a protein, any vegetables you happen to have around, and you’re done. It is satisfying without being heavy, and it can be great chilled or at room temperature.
Roscoe: I’d probably bring some charred onion dip and Wavy Lay’s—just saying.
On your playlist
Emily: When I am alone, you would think that I never left the mid-2000’s. I play a lot of Modest Mouse, Jay-Z, Death Cab for Cutie, and Missy Elliott. When the kids are around, there’s a lot of Stevie Wonder and the Hamilton soundtrack.
Roscoe: I cannot live or work without music. A solid playlist sparks creativity: Stereolab, Freddie Gibbs, Fred Hubbard, Anita Baker—it is all good.
The Champion: Leigh Sloss-Corra
Long before the word “incubator” was bandied about in business and pop culture circles, Pepper Place Market was one, quite organically. Operating for more than 20 years in what has become Birmingham’s design district, the market is overseen by executive director Leigh Sloss-Corra, scion of the Sloss Furnace Company founder. Leigh’s love of all things food has taken her to California, France, New York, Australia, and beyond to work with chefs, food stylists, recipe developers, and writers. And after landing back in Birmingham at Pepper Place, she has used her experiences to empower others, facilitate connections, and tell the larger story of food in Alabama. She’s the kind of person who believes in you before you even believe in you.
Tell us about your involvement with Les Dames d’Escoffier (LDEI):
When LDEI seeks nominees for its female food entrepreneur award or is recruiting new members, I can easily recommend outstanding women from our market community because, like LDEI, the Market at Pepper Place curates and brings together the highest quality, most creative, hardest-working farmers and food producers in the state. Being part of LDEI is incredibly rewarding. The members are extraordinary, smart, savvy, and FUN! They love food and flavors and beautifully put-together celebrations. These women are compassionate and are always looking for opportunities to help others.
What is the best thing about your job as executive director of Pepper Place Market?
I get to connect directly with the finest farmers, food producers, and makers in the state on a daily basis. I have a vested interest in their productivity and success at our market, which means we have a stronger relationship. That is personally very rewarding.
Any silver linings from 2020?
People embraced drinking and dining alfresco, whether in the backyard, on the patio, and even in the street. Birmingham bars and restaurants have commandeered every outdoor option, and it’s awesome! The food tastes better, people are more relaxed, and you get to look around you and see your surroundings differently. During the height of COVID, I got such a kick out of seeing people sitting in lawn chairs in their front yards enjoying a glass of wine just to feel connected. People were hungry for community, and they became more neighborly as a result.
It sounds like you have an unquenchable thirst for connectivity.
Maybe I am what you’d call an enthusiastic matchmaker. I am drawn to colorful, creative, smart people, and I enjoy introducing them to other people or places I know and love. That gives me immense pleasure. It helps that I am a “localist.” I dig in where I am. I don’t wish I were somewhere else (until I am on the road and find myself in Paris or Perth—then I am there!). Right now, I am here, in Birmingham, in Alabama, at this time in space—and it’s pretty awesome. My 92-year-old mother is here, along with my son, my sisters, and their families. I convinced my partner to move here. And one thing I’ve discovered about all the people in my life—we are all kinda similar.
The Fry Daddy: Sons Donuts
These are not your granddaddy’s donuts. Sure, they might start the same way with dough and a fryer, but from there, prepare to have your mind blown. Beyond straight-up glazed, think peanut butter and cocoa-sugared with a hot malted fudge (that would be The Jude). Or try The Fisher with cinnamon and cardamom-sugar and a vanilla bean diplomat cream. Pair it with a locally-roasted specialty blend from Non-Fiction Coffee or ice-cold milk spiked with shots of Valrhona chocolate or strawberry, and you’re beginning to get the idea of why Sons Donuts in Avondale is so special. The brainchild of two couples in the frozen dessert industry, Ryan and Geri-Martha O’Hara of Big Spoon Creamery and Jim and Amy Watkins of Steel City Pops, Sons Donuts capitalizes on the strengths of these Magic City confection pioneers, creating something altogether amazing.
How does ice cream + popsicles = donuts?
Ryan: Geri-Martha and I have known Jim and Amy since the early days of us starting Big Spoon Creamery. They were already crushing it with Steel City Pops, and Jim reached out to us to see if they could help us in any way. We quickly developed a friendship and partnership. Sons Donuts was started in late 2017 with testing, branding, and developing the concept as a whole. We are pleased to finally launch it!
The four of you bring a lot of talent to the collective table. How does it work?
Jim: Geri-Martha is strong on menu and flavor development. Ryan knows operations and puts together fantastic teams. My strength is in branding and developing while overseeing the creative aspects. Amy is the heart of Sons Donuts. Her influence guides the employees and the entire customer experience. Honestly, we are just better together than we would be individually.
When you aren’t indulging your sweet tooth, what’s your favorite meal out?
Ryan: Mr. Chen’s is easily the best Chinese food in the city, and they do a superb job on all the classic Chinese dishes we’re accustomed to in America, as well as tons of very authentic Chinese dishes.
Geri-Martha: It is a tie between two of our neighbors here in Avondale—Post Office Pies and Saw’s Soul Kitchen. Both restaurants are passionate about their craft.
For Ryan, a solid supply of kitchen towels is a necessity. “In restaurant kitchens, clean kitchen towels are basically like currency,” he says. “It feels amazing to have a nice stack of clean towels, and it’s the absolute worst to have none.” For Geri-Martha, it’s her scale. “All my formulas are in grams, so I must have a proper and precise scale,” she says.
The Butcher: Addam Evans
If you’re enjoying a good steak, pork chops, or porchetta in Birmingham, there’s a good chance that the source of that meat was Evans Meats. This family-owned business supplies many of our notable dining spots, ensuring chefs have the exact cuts customers crave. And those cravings didn’t cease when restaurants were briefly shuttered during last year’s pandemic. Time and again, Addam Evans and his team fielded calls from folks wanting to cook exceptional meats at home, asking to purchase from the wholesaler directly. Enter their retail space, Son of a Butcher, opening in Pepper Place this summer. This one-stop-shop for restaurant-quality meats, seafood, cheeses, and accoutrements means the best dinner spot in town could just be your kitchen table.
Who knew a pandemic could create the perfect environment for a new business?
We were definitely taken aback last year by the response from people asking to buy direct, but looking back, we definitely had a bit of a captive audience! And because we had a warehouse full of fresh meats, seafood, and cheeses to sell, it made sense to try it. In addition to carrying those same items in Son of a Butcher, we’ll also sell some pantry items like interesting jams, finishing oils, and vinegars—things you cannot find anywhere else in town.
Working in a family business can be a mixed bag. What is it like at Evans Meats?
My dad is mostly retired now, but when we were working together, it forced us to develop an honest relationship with each other. I wouldn’t trade this opportunity to work with family for anything. My brother and I have a great working relationship. We each have different gifts and oversee different parts of the business. Moreover, we trust each other and know we have each other’s best interests in mind. I love the culture we’ve created. We work hard, but we have a lot of fun. And we’re all very protective of what we’ve built.
Asking you to pick a favorite restaurant in town might cause a little friction at work. But is there a dish you especially love to eat out—one that might be too intimidating to make at home?
There’s a real art when it comes to creating things like pâtés, rillettes, chicken liver mousse, and foie gras torchons. At home, I prefer to keep things simple—usually just doing something on my Big Green Egg.
In the Cooler
When we go to the lake or the beach, I like to pack St. Louis ribs, crabmeat, fresh oysters, beef tenderloin, rosé, and Stone IPA. I’m also partial to these new Jamboree Jams we are bringing in from New Orleans; they are great with any of the cured meats and cheeses we’ll sell at the shop.
The Educator: Amanda Storey
Amanda Storey’s relationship with Jones Valley Teaching Farm, the non-profit organization she now helms as executive director, started rather humbly as a mere fan. Years before, she’d gotten to know JVTF (formerly Jones Valley Urban Farm) founder and director Edwin Marty when they both worked at Southern Progress Corporation. In 2009, finding herself between work opportunities, she exchanged marketing and communications help for the farm in return for a box of downtown-grown produce. What began as Amanda’s appreciation for Edwin’s work grew into a passion for exploring policies and systems related to food access. She went on to enact change through her work with United Way and with the Community Food Bank of Central Alabama. And now, under Amanda’s leadership, the future for the farm is strong. “I truly believe in JVTF’s vision of a Birmingham inspired by food and transformed by youth,” she says. “It’s all about the way we choose to invest in young people who want to grow their own food on their own land, own their own businesses, start their own restaurants, and lead our communities. That’s the future of Birmingham.”
So much has happened in your tenure with Jones Valley Teaching Farm, but the crown jewel has to be the Center for Food Education, opening this year.
The Center will position Birmingham as a national leader and model for food-based education and workforce development. This is going to be the realization of a collective dream shared by so many people.
Did the pandemic change anything in these plans?
As I’ve watched our local partners—markets, businesses, chefs, restaurateurs—respond to COVID-19, I am reminded of why a food community is so important to the health of our city. I really hope the Center for Food Education will be a flagship for our food community, demonstrating in partnership and in action how we can grow, cook, learn, and share together. And as we emerge from the impact of the global pandemic, we will keep young people at the heart of all of our decisions and dreams.
The kitchen is the heart of a home, and we bet The Culinary Studio at the Center will be the heart of the farm.
My kitchen at home was designed by me and my husband, Mike, so it is incredibly close to my heart. It’s open to our den and dining room, and we can host a lot of family and friends—something that is very important to us. I want The Culinary Studio to be the same kind of connector for the Jones Valley community.
Speaking of family, are your kids good eaters?
Martin Everitt (9) loves cheese dip, watermelon, and grapes. Mae (6) loves cheese dip and pancakes. However, if they are both at the farm, they prefer carrots (all colors).
Amanda’s “Can’t Wait to Try” List:
Helen, Los Valadores Taco Truck, Red Sea Ethiopian and Mediterranean Restaurant (vegetable plate), Luna, and Sol y Luna. “My first time out with my husband at an actual restaurant in over a year was on Chez Fonfon’s patio,” says Amanda.
Photography by Mary Fehr