Food & Wine: Drew Robinson

© Angie Mosier

Drew Robinson

F&W Star Chef

Chef: Drew Robinson

Restaurants: Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q (based in Birmingham, AL; multiple locations)

Experience: Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham, AL; Heritage House Inn, Mendocino, CA; Hot and Hot Fish Club, Birmingham, AL

Education: New England Culinary Institute

Who taught you how to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from that person?
The first person to cultivate my interest in cooking was my grandfather. He was a pretty simple guy. He was not a “chef” by any stretch of the imagination. But he grew up in Louisiana and had a love of eating, drinking and being in the kitchen, and cooking for folks. It wasn’t about cooking a certain kind of food. It was about the general community and enjoyment of cooking and sharing food.

What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
What we do at Jim 'N Nick's is very meat and smoked meat-centric, in a Southern tradition. I can’t point to one singular dish.

What is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
I can’t give a specific best dish to try. It should be something that they’re familiar with, that is part of their history, and that they enjoy. It has to be something you have a connection with. It makes it easier to execute and more satisfying to enjoy when it’s finished.

Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned from him/her?
Frank Stitt, who I worked for at Highlands Bar and Grill. He cultivated not just my cooking, but thoughtfulness and attention to the entire experience of food. I worked for him for three years. He gave me a deeper appreciation for Southern food, which has been my background, all my culinary life. He gave me an appreciation that Southern food is really a growing and evolving thing, as new influences, ideas and cultures reflect on it.

Favorite cookbook of all time?
It changes pretty frequently. I always return to Edna Lewis’s books. Right now Vibration Cooking: or, The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl by Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor is high on my list. What’s so cool is that it talks about food and preparation, but also paints an autobiographical picture of the author’s background and history, and her philosophy on food, cooking and life. It paints a picture of race and gender and how they relate to food.

What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
Attention. Not a lot of people have the mindfulness to view food more broadly than a single dish or meal, but it’s important.

Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
I try to spend a lot of time around other chefs and I always realize I’ve got something new to learn.

What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how do you use it?
I don’t have a “magic bullet” ingredient, but as a Southerner I would say that corn is a critical ingredient for my particular larder. Fresh corn is delicious; creamed corn is a luxury; grits are a humble staple that can be elevated to a light soufflé or even a pudding. In my opinion, grits are superior to polenta. Corn is a gift from the Americas to the rest of the world. Cornmeal can quickly become cornbread to provide a hearty meal with just some peas and maybe a slice of ham; it can be a simple snack with butter, or turned into spoonbread for a genuine Southern luxury.

What is your current food obsession?
What I’m enjoying the most right now is eating Vietnamese food. We do have some Vietnamese restaurants in Birmingham, and I just had a lot of good Vietnamese food in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Name two restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year and why?
Pêche Seafood Grill, Donald Link’s new place in New Orleans, is at the top of my list. I’m friends with Donald and his chef and have eaten at their other restaurants and know how incredible they are.

I’ve never made it to Poole’s Diner in Raleigh, North Carolina, and am planning on going there in the next year. I’m excited about that because I’m great friends with owner Ashley Christensen, and she makes wonderful food.

Best bang-for-the-buck food trip—where would you go and why?
The Bay Area in California. There are so many awesome restaurants there that are affordable, and food trucks as well. You can eat really high-quality food and do it affordably and casually.

What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
A knife that was given to me by Ashley Christensen at the Memphis in May festival. It’s a little mother of pearl handled Teflon knife that she found in Spain. I keep that one at home.

What do you consider your other talent(s) besides cooking?
I enjoy music quite a bit and play the guitar as a hobby. I’ve written a few pieces of food writing and had good feedback.

If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
I’d like it to capture the outdoor cooking spirit I experienced with the asado chefs of Uruguay. I’d do lots of whole animal cooking over an incredible outdoor fire. Something like Uruguay, but in Birmingham.

If you were going to take Anthony Bourdain out to eat, whom would you choose, and where would you eat?
I can’t pick one single restaurant. What I can say is that I would like to eat with Anthony Bourdain because of my impressions of his way of approaching food and possibly life, at least in the small way I can interpret that through his writing and television shows. Where would I like to go with him? After serious consideration, I'd really like to get my friends in the Fatback Collective together, invite him and take an eating trip through Puerto Rico. To me, an eating tour of a culture is much more exciting than eating in a restaurant anyway.

If you were facing an emergency, and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, and what would you make?
Good salt, good vinegar, good oil, something to start a fire and some tools to hunt with. With those things, I could make something delicious.

What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
Right now, people have been using a lot of bacon and pork, and latching on to bacon almost as a condiment. There will be a pendulum shift and people will want lighter, more refreshing ingredients. What that is, I don’t know, but I imagine people will find something to latch onto that’s multipurpose.

Do you have any food superstitions or pre- or post- shift rituals?
I’m part of a group of chefs that gets together and cook frequently. We call ourselves the Fatback Collective. We come together in the spirit of learning together and doing good work while we’re cooking. Almost always, before we go into service, we’ll drink a bourbon together, to toast the moment and to make sure everything goes smoothly.

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