By Stephanie Burt of The Southern Fork
Chef Chris Hastings is a fixture in Birmingham, AL. His restaurants, Hot and Hot Fish Club and Ovenbird, are some of the most lauded in the city, and he cut his culinary teeth working for such heavy hitters as Jeremiah Tower and Birmingham colleague Frank Stitt. He also has always incorporated his love of the outdoors in his cooking, including often cooking what he’s hunted on his days out of the kitchen or caught at the end of a fishing line, clothed in waders knee deep in a mountain stream. Hastings was a nominee for the James Beard Best Chef: South award in 2007 and 2012, and he has two SIF for his restaurants, so he sees cooking outdoors as central to his creative process, not just an addendum to it, and the results are award-winning delicious.
Do you have a grilling or campfire memory that started your love of outdoor cooking?
As a very young boy, my family of five would do primitive camping in the Linville Gorge. We’d hike three miles in, hiking everything in and out, and cook over a fire since we didn’t obviously hike in a stove. One of my best memories, I was probably 10, and I caught my first wild trout fly fishing in the Linville River. It was around 10 inches, and we cooked it for dinner that night -- it was one of the most delicious fish I’ve ever eaten.
What’s one meal that really shines on your SIF?
I’ve become really, really good at paella. It’s a rice dish that is a foil for all sorts of ingredients, and I like to make them seasonally. I recently made a spring paella with first of the season Vidalia, peas, rabbit, crawfish, and here, people love being around the SIF in the fall and early Spring.
What is something you’ve cooked on the SIF that surprised you?
In the fall, we do homemade s’mores on the SIF at the restaurant, and they’re a huge hit. Everything homemade: marshmallows, graham cracker, good chocolate. Everybody loves a fire, there’s something visceral about it, and it’s what I love about fire generally. It’s great to get people outside at the restaurant around it.
How would you describe your style of cooking?
I’m a die hard farm-to-table guy, so that means I cook in the moment I live in. I weave travel, childhood in there (I’m a creative person), but when you are blindfolded and taste the food, you will instantly know where you are in the seasons in the American South.
What type of wood do you like for your SIF?
Hickory is the bulk wood, but if I have access to Alder, it’s great for some light smoking, cedar for some fish things, nut woods. I go with different woods for different preps.
What’s something tricky about open fire that the average cook needs to know?
You need to understand the relationship between wood, oxygen, and fire. Know your wood -- wet equals smoky, dry will burn hot -- and it’s about building, starting and maintaining a fire. A fire is a living organism, and I’m forever teaching the people on my staff the knowledge of how the whole thing functions together properly. You really have to look at it, feel the heat on it, its waxing and waning. You got to be in the game.
What is your favorite element of the SIF?
The intuitive raising and lowering and moving of the grill grate. It’s genius. You have to be able to get to the fire to work with it, and there is a simplicity of this design that allows that.
Rabbit and Crawfish Paella with Spring Vegetables
Serves 30 people
Editor’s Note: In order to make this the show stopping centerpiece of your celebrations, you’ll need one large paella pan. It’s totally worth the investment (once you make paella, you probably will want to make paella more), but if not, then you’ll need to coordinate multiple large format cast iron skillets for this preparation.
2 quarts uncooked Calasparra rice
2 cups extra virgin olive oil
2 quarts sofrito
4 quarts rabbit stock from braised rabbit
2 quarts cooked crawfish
1 quart diced braised rabbit
1 quart blanched and diced asparagus
1 quart braised and diced spring vidalia onions
1 quart raw diced sugar snap peas
1 quart English peas
1 quart shrimp stock
2 cups chopped flat leaf parsley
1 cup sliced chives
- Place paella pan over open fire on Sea Island Forge and get hot. Add extra olive oil and heat until just before smoking, then add raw rice and cook till golden brown, stirring continuously.
- Add sofrito and 1 quart of rabbit stock and mix thoroughly. Stir continuously as rice absorbs broth, then add additional quart, one at at time, as needed till rice is cooked to al dente. (You might not use the whole 4 quarts but close.) Season with salt and pepper.
- Add rabbit, asparagus, sugar snaps, English peas, vidalia onions and crawfish, and shrimp stock. Mix all ingredients evenly and cook for 4 minutes. Add fresh herbs. Taste, adjust seasoning as needed, and serve immediately.