Chef Sedesh Boodram is from Trinidad and Tobago. He trained in France and has worked with some of the most celebrated chefs in the world. And he’s decided that Birmingham is home.
For his first solo concept, The Anvil Pub & Grill in Hoover’s Village at Lee Branch, Boodram drew from his life experiences and love of family to create an upscale, modern English pub – a nod to his early years growing up in the former British colony, which held onto certain food traditions. At The Anvil, he serves a global menu that is flavored by his travels, crafted from his classical training and rooted in the South.
Boodram delights in making the familiar taste different – and new and exciting. “I think what I do best,” he says, “is showing food in a different light. Giving it a different approach. That’s what I try to do.”
But it’s deeper than that.
“There’s a memory that goes with food as well,” he says, “and I always have to remember that. I always want to bring it back to the memory. … Most people associate food with when they were growing up. … It’s a psychological thing. I want – even though it looks different and feels different – when they put it in their mouths and they close their eyes, it brings them back to that memory they have.”
His favorite food memory is of okra. Growing up in Trinidad, he ate vegetables for breakfast, and okra has always been his favorite. “Every time my mom would make okra, I’d love it. I’d get so excited.” That and fried chicken, which his mother made for the two of them whenever his father was traveling. “It was something we just shared between us.”
Boodram didn’t initially set out to be a chef. He wanted a career in the fashion industry and was studying fashion merchandising at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
Then a dinner changed his mind.
Shortly after 9/11, his husband took him to dinner at Per Se, Thomas Keller’s famous restaurant. And Boodram, who says he was a picky eater as a child, had an epiphany during the nine-course tasting menu. “I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ I fell in love with it.”
So, he changed his life’s course and enrolled in The French Culinary Institute, where he graduated as valedictorian. Then there was this moment of serendipity: “I was in Paris,” Boodram says, “and I ran into Thomas Keller and I said, ‘Hey, just so you know, I went to your restaurant. I ate there. I loved your food, and I changed my path and my career because I wanted to do what you’re doing.’ And he said, ‘When you come back to New York, give me a call.’ And I said, ‘OK, but I’m still in culinary school.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, don’t worry about it.’’’
When Boodram returned to New York, he called Keller and said, “Hey, I met you in Paris.” And Keller replied: “Yeah, I remember you. Come in, and let’s do an interview.” And that led to a job at Per Se where Boodram refined the skills he had learned in school. After that, he worked in pastry (something he had not studied as much) with chef Geoffrey Zakarian. He worked with Daniel Humm at Eleven Madison Park, too.
He opened The Anvil at the beginning of the pandemic (two weeks before the state’s mandated shutdown) and has, even in these difficult couple of years, grown it into a successful, popular place.
At The Anvil, Boodram and his chef de cuisine, Trenton Tisdale, cook globally inspired dishes for lunch, dinner and weekend brunch. There are fun small plates for grazing, along with freshly crafted cocktails and a long list of accessibly priced bottles and wines by the glass.
They rely upon local makers and small-farm partners like Southern Organics and Alena Ingram (“She just grows a small garden and … she just brings stuff to me,” Boodram says. “I’m like, ‘Whatever your garden makes … just bring that to me.’”) He gets eggs and grits from McEwen & Sons and coffee from Non-Fiction Coffee Co.
One look at the menu reveals an inventive approach that mixes familiar ingredients with others that are perhaps not what you’d expect. Think grilled Duroc pork loin with miso sweet potato, dashi, braised collards and satsuma. They pair strozzapreti pasta with Gulf-fresh shrimp. Pan-seared duck breast comes with rice grits, pickled rhubarb and Vietnamese au poivre sauce. They add tahini to the roasted cauliflower; there are Hungarian paprikash wings.
The menus change seasonally and frequently within the season, depending upon what farmers have fresh. You might find crispy cod cakes with pork belly, Asian slaw and avocado puree; a farmer’s salad featuring Ireland Farms lettuces, fresh berries and French feta; and cornmeal-crusted fried whole okra served with an Alabama white barbecue sauce.
Scotch eggs; cock-a-leekie soup; fish and chips; and lamb pie, made with BDA Farm lamb and topped with a Guinness gravy, are some of the pub fare choices. Additionally, Boodram has done a typical English Sunday roast, a full English breakfast (think beans on toast, blood sausage, bangers and mash) and he offers occasional high tea (check Instagram and the website for notices).
Everything is made in-house – even the brioche bun for the burger, which is one of the best in town with its Angus beef, caramelized onions and your choice of stilton or cheddar.
He’s working on a summer tomato salad, and while most area restaurants do this, and diners eagerly look forward to the menu debut, his, he says, will be unique to The Anvil. Last year, he did a version with peaches and olives and farmer’s cheese; this year, he’s thinking about using the rich, creamy inside of burrata in some unexpected way.
While working as chef de cuisine at Hot and Hot, Boodram developed a deep appreciation for local and regional Southern ingredients, for things that are grown nearby. And he admits that learning to cook with some of these ingredients was initially a challenge. “How do you make grits?” he once asked a Hot and Hot co-worker. “It’s kind of like polenta,” was the reply.
He learned to cook what the local farmers were growing, as opposed to ordering ingredients from all over the world like he did at the New York restaurants. Taking a humble approach, he said to area farmers: “’You guys produce what you want, what works best in your soil, and I have to figure it out, as opposed to me telling you what I want.’
“The thing about having a unique restaurant is you can only have this where you are … in the soil you’re standing on and in the environment you’re in. Other than that, it’s a chain restaurant and you can have it anywhere else in the world. I wanted to make sure you can only have this experience if you’re in Birmingham, Alabama, where we are right now.”
The large, breezy, plant-filled patio is the first thing you notice at The Anvil. It features a custom enclosure by Red Mountain Ironworks and lots of soft seating that’s perfect for an after-work gathering or weekend relaxing. Boodram added the patio during the pandemic – offering outside dining and a kind of mini-escape.
“Everybody wanted to travel, and nobody could travel,” he says. “I wanted to make it feel like you’re transported to a vacation spot, as opposed to, ‘Oh, I’m sitting in Birmingham on a patio.’ I said, ‘OK, we need to make this patio feel like you walk in here and everything kind of falls away and you walk into a different experience.’”
The casual, yet sophisticated interior at The Anvil was designed to appeal to a variety of diners – from couples out for a romantic dinner to families simply eating out together.
“I wanted to bring a fine-dining approach to everything we do but still in a casual way,” he says. “If you want to come in on a date and be fancy, you can. If you want to bring your kids and hang out, there are burgers and a kids’ menu. That how I started approaching it. Because with my husband, myself and our 14-year-old, I want to go somewhere that the three of us would go. He can have his steak and potatoes and she can have her burger, and then I would want something a little more interesting. So, we created something that my family would go to, and I’m hoping it would translate to other people’s families as well.”
It’s working. Hoover, especially, loves The Anvil. The restaurant has racked up a string of “Best of Hoover” awards: Best Date Night Restaurant, Best Lunch Spot, Best Patio Dining, Best Drinks/Cocktails and Best Chef. The place is also a favorite with other local chefs and food professionals.
A handsome marble bar greets guests entering The Anvil. There’s a private room (with patio access) for large celebrations. Boodram followed his fashion sense for the blue walls, which are a picture-perfect background for social media posts. Lighting, chosen to soften the space, is reflected in a 150-year-old mirror from Hanna Antiques Mall. Boodram’s own paintings – abstracts of local landmarks and realistic flowers – grace the walls. Tables here are made by Manufacture Good (formerly Magic City Woodworks), which offers apprenticeships to help young men bridge the gap between unemployment and meaningful employment. “I fell in love with their story,” Boodram says. These tables weren’t the least expensive option, he adds, but, “I feel like we’re giving back to the community.”
In the next year, Boodram plans to expand his winning concept to downtown Birmingham. Some aspects of this more urban Anvil will cater to a fine-dining customer, but we can expect the same comfortable hospitality and warmth that seems easy for this chef.
Boodram wants his customers to find his food “surprising and interesting.” He’d like for them to tell others, “‘It’s delicious, and you’re going to have a good time.’
“You know,” he says, “one of my friends, Grant Achatz (of the acclaimed Alinea in Chicago), said when people come to his restaurant the meal should be great, it should be wonderful, but it should never take away from the experience you’re having with the person you’re sitting across from at the table. And I always remember that because he’s right. You want to make it grand, and you want to make it great, but you come to a restaurant for an experience.”
The Anvil Pub & Grill
611 Doug Baker Blvd. Unit 103
Birmingham, Alabama 35242
In The Village at Lee Branch
Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Sunday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Closed on Monday
(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)