Chef John Hall has big plans in Birmingham
John Hall could cook anywhere in the world. He’s talented enough. He’s driven enough. But seven years ago, he chose to come home to Birmingham and reclaim this food city as his own.
Like many chefs in Birmingham, Hall did a stint with Frank Stitt. His formal training included culinary school at the Johnson & Wales University Charleston, South Carolina, campus and an apprenticeship that he arranged at Luxembourg’s Lea Linster. Then Hall moved to New York for a spot on the line at Gramercy Tavern. From there, he went to Thomas Keller’s Per Se, and then worked for two years as sous-chef at Momofuku Ssäm Bar.
Hall is now the chef and co-owner of Post Office Pies in Avondale along with Mike Wilson (Saw’s Soul Kitchen) and good friend Brandon Cain (Roots & Revelry). Named for a 1950s post office location, Post Office Pies isn’t a typical pizza joint.
As expected from a chef with Hall’s pedigree, the food here – even the humblest of pies – is extraordinary. Pizzas are made with dough that has been fermented for 12 hours before it’s topped with choices that include homemade pork sausage, Nueske’s bacon, Molinari & Sons pepperoni or roasted chicken thighs, perfectly stringy aged house-made mozzarella, pomodoro sauce, roasted garlic spread or fresh basil.
Then it is put into wood-fired brick ovens and served on butcher paper in family style. Interestingly, locally sourced salads (the seasonal Brussels sprouts salad is a crowd favorite) are served on pizza pans.
The friendliness of the staff at Post Office Pies speaks to what Hall took away from his time in New York with Danny Meyer, who is known the world over for his gracious service. The noted restaurateur’s Union Square Hospitality Group includes Gramercy Tavern.
While working in New York, Hall felt called to entrepreneurship. He started baking pizzas from midnight to 4 a.m. in his Brooklyn apartment and delivering them on bicycle. He hasn’t lost that longing for his own place. He’s planning one now, and he has some definite ideas.
“I want it to be a small space. I want to make sure that I’m behind the stove every night, at least for the first few years.”
It will be contemporary American that draws on Southern influences as well as the fine-dining experience at Gramercy Tavern, which remains one of Hall’s favorite restaurants.
“The style and the type of food that (executive chef) Mike Anthony cooks and that he taught us is very close to me,” he said. “It’s how I like to cook. I would like to do a tasting menu, maybe like a five-course, prix fixe tasting menu offered nightly by reservation.”
Being behind his own stove – “being the chef cooking your meal” – means a lot to Hall.
“You look at any restaurant these days, not only here in Birmingham but in New York, LA, anywhere … in this day and age where chefs are rock stars … it’s great, it’s cool for our industry, but also I feel it’s become a bit of a distraction,” he said.
“It creates a sort of egotistical mentality. I feel the passion is taken away a bit. … People are more concerned about the clicks on Instagram and the Twitters and how many people are following me … and that is not about the food. It’s not about the labor of love,” he said.
Hall is adamant about not being someone else’s tenant.
“I understand who I am. I understand my value. I understand my worth. Throughout going to college and the places I worked … my experience, my resume, speaks for itself. And I’m not going to go into a place to … make a financial benefit for someone else,” he said.
“There’s that social and economic disparity between African-Americans and other ethnicities here in Birmingham. It’s a huge disparity still.
“I’m going to go somewhere and I’m going to own the building and I’m going to own the concept. I’m going to … change the trajectory of a neighborhood that needs economic influence. … That’s the bigger story. That’s the bigger picture,” Hall said. “And, to be quite honest, if I can’t do that, the restaurant’s not going to happen.”
Hall is well aware of the part Post Office Pies played in revitalizing Avondale, changing the landscape of that neighborhood, and he wants to continue to make that kind of impact in Birmingham.
“It goes beyond food. Food is just my avenue. It’s what I do.” The key, he said, is to use that as a way to change viewpoints and change Birmingham and how people view African-Americans. “We’re not just barbecue or fried chicken. I can cook with the best in the country. Period. So I’m going to use … what I’ve learned to make change here.”
Hall grew up cooking alongside his mother and grandmother. He said they taught him, at an early age, to love food and to appreciate the fun of it, the personal relationship with the food. “Seeing things through,” he said. “I feel like that’s what I took from them. From the shopping to the cooking to the cleaning. Seeing things through to fruition. That’s one of the huge benefits I got from my mom and my grandparents through cooking.”
Hall is quick to honor the people who have come before him and the contributions they have made, the impact they have had on not just Southern food but also on American food. That an African-American doing fine dining is a rarity is something that frustrates him. The fact that he’s an African-American restaurant owner shouldn’t come as a surprise either, he said.
“I really want to do my part to change that perception because of the contributions … that we’ve made. You look at Dol (Dolester Miles) who won the James Beard Award this year for best pastry chef. She’s been with Frank for how many years? How many people did not know who she was until last year? It’s insane. It’s sad. You know, she’s been there since day one, but how many people knew who she was until she won the James Beard Award?”
It’s not just individuals who should be celebrated, he said. It’s much bigger than that.
He points out that slow-cooked foods like ox tails, short ribs, pork cheeks and collards weren’t on many menus 10 years ago, and now you’ll easily find recipes for them in Food & Wine and Bon Appetit. These foods have been part of the African-American culinary experience for hundreds of years. Learning to cook these inexpensive foods, these less-desirable ingredients, was simply a fact of life for generations of African-Americans.
Now, these dishes are “front-page news and people are not getting the acknowledgement and (credit) that these food items are mainstream now,” Hall said. “That’s frustrating. I want to help change that as well.”
(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)