On June 21st, the Junior Board of Jones Valley Teaching Farm will present Cocktails on the Farm, a community event featuring some of Birmingham’s best food, drink, and music. This series will highlight the chefs, bartenders, and musicians that are building a strong, diverse community around food, drink, and people in Birmingham.
Our third profile features Robby Melvin and Hunter Lewis of Southern Living, whose Test Kitchen will be one of the vendors at Cocktails on the Farm.
We know you must get asked this a lot, but…what exactly is a test kitchen?
Hunter: It’s a laboratory — it’s a place where recipes are developed, tested, cross-tested and perfected. It’s a space where you’re perfecting recipes and polishing them for the readers. There are a few things we think about with every recipe we test: Is it easily shoppable for the reader — meaning, can your mom or aunt go out in their hometown and get these groceries to make this dish in realistic way? Is it rooted in tradition, but also pushing the food forward? And lastly, we think about is it delicious and do we want to make this at home?
So that’s what the kitchen is as a physical space, but it’s also the heart and the soul and engine of our food content. It’s the place we gather on a daily basis to discuss our ideas, to taste new things, to try new products. It’s just like the kitchen in anyone’s home nowadays — it’s the central gathering point.
Robby, tell us a little bit about the difference between working in a test kitchen versus working in a restaurant?
Robby: The test kitchen is kind of like a creative incubator, a place where you really get a chance to delve into the tiny details of what we’re cooking. I’ve worked in catering and restaurants my whole life, and there’s very little time to do that in the business. Out there you’re on a stressful deadline and there’s a lot of action happening. Here we get to dial it back and focus as much time and energy on the thought behind the dish as the production of it. To take the time and really go several steps deeper into how to make the perfect mayonnaise, the best roast or the tastiest salad dressing is an incredible opportunity.
H: And we don’t throw pots and pans here!
When did you realize you had a passion for food?
R: My first food memory is sitting on the counter at my grandma’s house making drop biscuits. Since then, food has always interested me. At holidays and family gatherings, most folks are gathered around the TV watching “the game,” but I always gravitated towards the kitchen. I wanted to have a life’s work and food quickly became it. So I got a job in restaurants- It was an exciting, creative place to work and I got to eat. And I soon developed a love for the whole food process—from growing to harvesting to cooking.
H: I think for me my love of food started around my big extended family table. You know, like at holiday gatherings and family reunions. But it wasn’t until I moved away from the south to New York City to start a career in restaurant kitchens that I really understood where I was from, how I grew up eating and why those ingredients are so special. And it’s been awesome to come back down south eight years later to a place where you can discuss everything from onions to oysters so passionately. I mean, you can argue about this stuff for days!
So you both have been around the industry for quite a while. Tell us a little bit about what you see happening with food culture in Birmingham.
H: Well before I moved back down here (about a year and a half ago), I kept hearing that Birmingham is a food town. And I agree with that, but I think it still has a long way to go. From the restaurants to underground supper clubs and awesome farms like JVTF, you’re beginning to see a lot more of food as community and as a gathering point. Food is such a great common denominator; it brings people from all different walks of life together. And in this sense, Birmingham is maturing. It’s going beyond the traditional white table cloth places and it’s becoming more experimental. In a sense, Birmingham is entering its second act.
R: We are definitely approaching this real, second act for the city. Birmingham’s getting on board with the idea that you don’t have to have a fine-dining establishing to serve great food. There are guys in Birmingham who are using the same fine-dining ingredients and the same techniques, but presenting in a much more casual/laid back way. And these are all guys who have come from the founders of our food city. Younger people are getting more involved with the food scene and people are finally thinking more outside the box about food– where you can find it, source it, get it, eat it. And I think that’s a very good thing.
What do you think is the best part about working in one of those more unconventional kitchens?
H: Here at the test kitchen, we’ve got systems and we’ve got protocols. Like we mentioned earlier, recipes have to get developed, tested, cross-tested and then then copy-edited. So there is a very firm, rigorous path to a great recipe. But when it comes down to it, cooking is all about heart and soul. It’s about feeding people and making people happy. And just like in a restaurant kitchen or, more importantly, just like in someone’s home, when you’re feeding your family, the heart and soul of it is the most important thing. Just like we want to cook for our own families, that’s our number one priority for our readers. And it’s got to be from the sense of one big shared table.
R: Exactly. The rigid details of the job are necessary, but at the end of the day it is about the food. It’s about what we get from it and how we are able to affect other people’s lives through what we do. We gather around a big table to discuss everything we’ve done with this very rigid process, but it always comes back to that square one. We’re around a table, food has brought us together, now how are we touching someone else’s life through it?
Want to see the test kitchen in action? Join us and Hunter and Robby on Saturday, June 21st, for the second annual Cocktails on the Farm. Tickets can be purchased here.