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Best New Chefs

James Lewis

2011 Best New Chef Award Profile
James Lewis
Photo © Caleb Chancey

video Video Best New Chef James Lewis.

Born 1970; Montreal. Raised San Francisco, Lake Tahoe and Saratoga, CA; Birmingham, AL.

Education University of Alabama at Birmingham (bachelor's degree in Business)

Experience Plumed Horse, Saratoga, CA; Winston's and Café Julien, Birmingham, AL; La Locanda di Bu, Nusco, Italy.

Other Experience Antica Macelleria Cecchini butcher shop, Panzano, Italy.

How he got into cooking Making Sunday lunches with his grandmother. "Every Sunday, I'd be in the kitchen helping her. We'd make dishes like kibbe. On some level, it started my connection with food. I approach it from a pure standpoint, and it started with how a grandmother makes food for her family."

Why he went to Italy "I love Southern food, and I've spent a lot of time in Alabama, but it's not what I wanted to do. I wanted to learn from someone who had been doing that thing for a long time. I didn't just want to learn to make egg pasta: There's tons of different egg pastas, and tons of different ways of making it. I wanted to start with the origins of that. I'd been to Italy when I got married, and it really inspired me."

Biggest influences Master butcher Mario Cecchini; François Vecchio, a sausage maker in Alaska whom Lewis worked with; and Antonio Pisaniello, chef at La Locanda di Bu.

Challenging meal "Once, I planned to roast a wild boar for a wine dinner at Bettola. I ordered it with the head and skin intact. It came in with no skin, no head, and it was two days before the dinner. I had to call my pig guy, Henry Fudge. He got me a pig, but I had to take all the hair off of it. I had to literally dunk an 80-pound pig in hot water to scrape off the hair. It took me whole day to do it. By nature I'm a perfectionist, but sometimes I can't be."

Favorite childhood dish "My father was a big food lover—when we were living in San Francisco, he was into Julia Child, and he'd have elaborate parties. He showed me how to make crêpes, and we'd make crêpe "cakes" layered with chocolate ganache. I was nine, and I was like, Oh man. I was the only kid who brought deluxe sandwiches and carrot cake to school for lunch."

Favorite kitchen tool Deboning knife. "It's hand made by a blacksmith in Oregon, Bill Burke. He uses ball-bearing steel, so it's very hard; it has the right flexibility on the blade. It cost me $800."

Favorite food city Florence, Italy. "The simplicity of the food there, and the quality of it all—they're serious about every aspect of their cooking, down to the olive oil, the salt."

Guilty pleasure dish "In Spain, Arcos de la Frontera. I had really good french fries with Ibérico ham on top. The combination of those two things together was great: The fries were done really well, there was all that oil and nuttiness."

Least-favorite food trend Molecular gastronomy. "The art of that food is beautiful, but half the time, you bust the spherical, gel-filled fava bean when you're trying to get it on the plate. I don't know if the connection to real food is there."

Next Restaurant Vittoria, a butcher shop and restaurant. "It's named after my grandmother, and it will be a macelleria (butcher shop in Italian). We'll get whole hogs from farmers like Henry Fudge and butcher them, and we'll make sausages, hams, salumi. We'll have a glass cooler—it will be transparent on three sides, so you can see the whole hog hanging there, you can see the prosciutto and all the primal cuts. And if someone wants to order a bone-in chop, we'll cut it for them at that moment. There will be no deli case; it's partly an environmental thing, to save electricity. The food counter will be the same height as the dining counter—you'll be the same height as the guy preparing food right opposite you. I want to bring people closer to their food."

Restaurants
Bettola
2901 2nd Ave. S. Birmingham, AL, United States
(205) 731-6499
1 recipes by James Lewis

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