As this week’s cover story, column and events calendar should make abundantly clear, this month marks for the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches, a commemoration with a special resonance for Birmingham, another Alabama city that staged heroic idealism and bitter tragedy while the world looked on. The Magic City has long struggled to reconcile the scars of its past with its dreams for the future, but if the town’s much-touted cultural renaissance is any indication, the answer may lie in a surprisingly humble place: food.
Following in the wake of such chefs as Frank Stitt, Chris Hastings and Chris Dupont, Birmingham has emerged as a culinary heavyweight in the South, and it’s attracted the attention of an intriguing, innovative take on the idea of the pop-up restaurant. On the evening of April 17, Dinner Lab will host its inaugural dinner in Birmingham, benefiting UAB’s Minority Health and Health Disparities Research Center (MHRC).
Founded in New Orleans, Dinner Lab began as an attempt to diversify the city’s culinary landscape by offering local chefs an attempt to cook something outside of the Southern, Cajun or Creole norms. After early setbacks, the company accrued a network of talented chefs across the country, hosting pop-up dinners on each coast. In just two years, Dinner Lab has emerged as a platform for ambitious sous chefs and line cooks to craft and test out their own personalized menus, as well as an opportunity for foodies to have a unique dining experience.
“In the restaurant industry, there’s not really a place to prototype your menus and ideas,” said Francisco “Paco” Robert, chief operating officer of Dinner Lab. “You find an investor, you have a tasting or two, you spend a lot of money, cut the ribbon, and the critics come and tell you yea or nay, and the Yelpers give you a lot of feedback, but it’s usually not very constructive.
“So why Birmingham? I think it’s very similar to New Orleans in the sense that there’s not that much diversity when it comes to ethnic cuisine,” Robert added. “Now that we’ve created a pretty diverse network of chefs — we wanted to expand to the San Franciscos and New Yorks of the world at first, because that’s where the chefs were and are — now that we’ve created a nice network of chefs, we can start coming into the smaller cities that have that same original problem that New Orleans had. We want to be a platform for the up-and-coming local chefs as well, but also to inject some diversity.”
Because of New Orleans’ unique bylaws for Mardi Gras krewes, Dinner Lab is a membership-based organization, with yearly memberships costing $125. The annual fee may be steep for most, but the individual tickets — $50-55 for a five-course meal, which includes drinks and gratuity — are eminently reasonable in the context of high-quality dinners. Robert said the company plans to have two dinners per month in Birmingham by June, and Dinner Lab members will know the menu of each meal well in advance, but will only learn the location of the dinner 24 hours ahead of time.
Dinner Lab is predicated on two goals, according to Robert: giving would-be restaurateurs a platform to express themselves, and giving a unique dining experience to new markets.
“No sous chef ever wants to stay a sous chef,” Robert said. “There’s a lot of horizontal movement in the restaurant industry, and if there’s any way we can tweak that needle in a more vertical direction, that’s part of the goal. A place for them to test out and prototype, but also ideally have that Top Chef [experience], but real, not just a cash prize at the end.”
One of Dinner Lab’s biggest success stories is Kwame Onwuachi, the 24-year-old chef who will curate the inaugural Birmingham dinner. Onwuachi was raised in Brooklyn, has Nigerian grandparents and a mother living in New Orleans, giving him a unique blend of culinary backgrounds, and successful Dinner Lab networking has led to Onwuachi opening his own restaurant in Washington D.C. His April 17 dinner will feature courses including beet-cured hamachi, quail confit and dry-aged sirloin with pickled quail eggs.
Despite the ritzy quality of Onwuachi’s debut menu in Birmingham, both Robert and Dinner Lab’s senior culinary product manager, Byron Stithem, are scrupulous about avoiding overtly fancy trends.
“Typically [culinary] deconstruction or molecular-based cuisine doesn’t really work for us,” Stithem, who helps curate each Dinner Lab menu, said. “Sure, we’ll incorporate some of those elements, but for the most part the food is naturally humble by virtue of our situation. That’s not to say that we don’t have a progressive cuisine ethic — we absolutely do. But there’s not going to be an excess of foams on your plate, or powders and soils. … I try and keep people honest.
“We definitely get a lot of nontraditional takes on ethnic cuisine, because you have these very talented kids from multicultural backgrounds working in really nice restaurants, and they want to incorporate their technique and their family history as well,” Stithem continued. “The instances where we get a basic Ethiopian meal…are very rare, because people want to showcase how talented they are. Outside of that, it still takes a nice balance to make each market have an eclectic selection on the menu and not do the market a disservice – we don’t want to stroll in and change the market, we want to embrace the market itself.”
Robert, a Vestavia Hills High School graduate who has worked with Chris Hastings in the past, is also keenly aware of trying to keep the context of a city in mind when planning out menus — and when trying to network with executive chefs, who are likely to see Dinner Lab as competition, or as trying to poach their line cook talent. With Dinner Lab’s national lineup of chefs — according to Robert, the chefs who create each menu are roughly 50 percent visiting from out of town, like Onwuachi, and 50 percent local chefs — touring chefs are given an opportunity to be ambassadors for their executive chefs and their cities, Robert said.
First and foremost, Robert and Stithem both pointed out, Dinner Lab is meant to be a unique way for chefs to express themselves. “You do have a creative outlet in a restaurant setting, but it’s usually within the confines of what that restaurant’s cooking,” Robert said. “I’m from Puerto Rico — I would not be putting Puerto Rican specials or anything Puerto Rican-flavored out when I was working with Chris Hastings. Yet if I ever opened up a restaurant…I learned to cook with Grandma, and I’d want Puerto Rican flavors. And I think the key is finding that. That is the point of the company: someone who wants to do something different, someone who’s local, but who doesn’t have the opportunity.”
It only seems appropriate that Dinner Lab — which began as an attempt to inject diversity into New Orleans’ culinary life, and which prides itself on giving its members a chance to eat new food, discover new settings and meet new people with a common love of food — is kicking off its entry into Birmingham with a benefit for UAB’s MHRC, which is dedicated to analyzing and trying to mitigate the myriad health disparities in the state.
“We are pleased to introduce Dinner Lab to Birmingham,” Dr. Mona Fouad, founding director of the UAB MHRC, said in a press release. “Dinner Lab nurtures rising chefs, giving them an opportunity to experiment and excel, similar to the support the MHRC provides for scientists and scholars working to reduce health disparities.” Proceeds from the dinner will go to support MHRC programs to improve the health of vulnerable populations and disadvantaged communities in Alabama and across the country.