Delicious City

Alumni and faculty add zest to Birmingham's rising food scene
By Carla Jean Whitley • Photos by Steve Wood
Photo of Chef Abhi Sainju holding one of his Nepalese dumplings; title: Delicious City
Alumni and faculty add zest to Birmingham's rising food scene
By Carla Jean Whitley • Photos by Steve Wood
The South has historically been associated with good eating. But right now, Birmingham is experiencing a special moment in America’s culinary spotlight. Among the accolades it has received, Birmingham ranked first on Zagat’s 2015 list of the nation’s next hot food cities. Chef Frank Stitt’s Highlands Bar and Grill has been a finalist for the prestigious national James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant for a record nine years in a row. And just this month, Buzzfeed named Birmingham one of America's 12 underrated food cities.
The city’s national food cred dates back at least to 1982, when Highlands opened in the Five Points South neighborhood. Today Birmingham is fertile ground for foodies of all stripes hungry for creative restaurant concepts. Meet a few UAB alumni—and one professor—who have dived into the local food scene. They just might make the city more flavorful than ever.

Photo of Joe Maluff with big plate of food at Full Moon Bar-B-Que

Cultivating a Classic: Joe Maluff

Former Alabama assistant football coach Pat James and his wife, Eloise, opened the Southside location of Full Moon Bar-B-Que in 1986. But in 1997, the shop established an allegiance to the university a few blocks away, thanks in part to Joe Maluff (pictured above).
Maluff, a Birmingham native, long dreamed of a life in the restaurant business. His father, mother, and uncle all worked in food, and after high school Maluff pursued his passion to the Gulf coast. There, he worked in nearly every restaurant role. Between busy seasons, Maluff studied at UAB, taking courses one semester at a time. He graduated with a psychology degree in 2002.
During one of those semesters, Maluff and his brother, David, jumped when James offered an opportunity to purchase Full Moon, famed for its chowchow and half-dipped chocolate chip cookies. Today, Full Moon is 14 locations strong, including a restaurant inside UAB’s new Hill Student Center. Joe Maluff says his psychology background comes in handy when helping employees solve problems. “I use that knowledge every day,” he says.
Blazer sports memorabilia, along with Alabama and Auburn mementoes, adorn the walls of the Southside restaurant. Maluff and company also support a variety of UAB programs. The restaurant donated $100,000 to the new Football Operations Center and contributes more than $35,000 annually to the basketball team, for example.
“They give to me, and I give back to them,” Maluff says. “That’s what it’s about within your community. I came from UAB, so I want to give back to UAB.”

Photo of Kristen Farmer Hall rolling out dough in Feast & Forest kitchen

Sweet Success: Kristen Farmer Hall

Kristen Farmer Hall initially was drawn to UAB’s medical opportunities. Hall (pictured above), a Georgia native who received her bachelor’s degree from Samford University, had intended to become a doctor. But as she worked in postpartum labor and delivery, she became interested instead in public health and the systems of medicine.
That path would ultimately lead her into the restaurant business.
In 2001 Hall received her master’s degree from the School of Public Health focusing on maternal and child health, and the first 13 years of her career related to that field. She served as assistant director of the school’s Lister Hill Center for Health Policy before moving into development at the School of Medicine.
As Hall planned fund-raising events for work, she found Birmingham lacked an event space to serve small groups. “My goal was to create an environment so that people could learn about the programs and match up their interests with the goals of the university,” Hall says. “The fund-raising I liked to do was more intimate, so a small group of potential donors could get to know the program director.”
At the same time, Hall began baking goodies with her daughters, Eleanor and Emma, as a family hobby. The trio delivered treats to friends, who labeled them the “Baking Bandits.” Hall hosted a pop-up pastry shop under that name in October 2013.
Hall entered and won REV Birmingham’s first Big Pitch in 2014, a contest meant to stimulate entrepreneurship in the city. The prize was capital to launch her business. Hall opened The Nest event space in Birmingham’s Avondale neighborhood and moved in Baking Bandits operations. Soon afterward, the demand for her food and hospitality encouraged her to look for opportunities to expand.
Hall appreciated the city’s fine dining options, but craved a casual cafe culture. That would allow people a chance to enjoy high-quality, seasonal food in a laid-back environment. “We want to be a place where you can come every day. We know your name and we know your order,” Hall says.
With chef Victor King, Hall opened Feast & Forest in November 2015, contributing to the city’s thriving Second Avenue North. Hall is pleased that the restaurant has hit its stride. But even after three business launches in as many years, she promises she’s not out of delicious ideas yet.

Photo of Jessica Merlin in Pizitz Food Hall

Food Sleuth: Jessica Merlin

Make no mistake, Jessica Merlin, M.D., M.B.A. (pictured above), isn’t a food professional; she’s an assistant professor of infectious diseases in UAB’s School of Medicine. But food helped Merlin, a Pittsburgh native, and her husband, Scott Doty, feel at home when they moved to Birmingham from New York City. The couple was eager to share their discoveries, especially with friends who wondered how they’d adjust to the South.
“Food is something that everyone can understand and can easily relay a message about a place,” Merlin says. “So we started taking pictures of the food we were eating and posting them on our Facebook pages.”
That love of food ultimately resulted in their blog, What to Eat in Birmingham. Merlin writes the bulk of posts, and Doty typically takes photos. It soon became common for a restaurant to experience a boom in business after being featured. And when local developer Bayer Properties approached Merlin about the blog, she saw an opportunity to play a hands-on role in shaping the scene. As Merlin learned about Bayer’s plans for the Pizitz Food Hall, a collection of food stands and restaurants inside a renovated 1920s department store in downtown Birmingham, she was inspired. The couple put together a proposal and was hired as consultants on the project, which opened earlier this year.
“We helped people understand what to do to be ready for a food hall,” Doty says. “This is about a very small menu where you have very high turnover and you have to get things out fast.”
The result? Fifteen booths and restaurants representing a variety of cuisines, from Ethiopian to Israeli to Asian fusion. Merlin and Doty estimate they recruited more than half the vendors.
“We’re really picky,” she says. “We do the same thing with the blog. We only write about places we like. We don’t trash places. I think we have a barometer for what’s good but also what people will like.“ Birmingham seems to agree.
[Editor’s Note: Though Merlin and Doty are leaving Birmingham in August 2017, What to Eat in Birmingham will live on, they say.]

Photo of Abhi Sainju at Abhi restaurant

Creative Chef: Abhi Sainju

While researching hidden food gems, Merlin and Doty fell head first for Everest Sushi, a pop-up sushi bar hidden inside a Five Points South sports bar. After their first visit in October 2014, the foodies became two of chef Abhi Sainju’s greatest champions.
But they were far from the first. Sainju (pictured above), a native of Nepal who graduated from UAB in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in management information systems, had been working in the local food scene for more than a decade. He taught himself to make sushi after working at Surin West, and also catered various events in an effort to test the city’s culinary tastes.
“If any of my friends came here, there was no place to take them out but an expensive restaurant. My friends don’t understand that kind of food,” Sainju says. “I’m going to do something about it,” he recalls saying to himself. “I’m going to take a chance.”
Birminghamians quickly embraced the texture, taste, and aroma of Sainju’s dishes. And shortly after the sports bar’s demise, Sainju opened Bamboo on Second with a pair of business partners. His food found new fans—and new opportunities came his way.
After splitting with Bamboo, Sainju opened his own restaurant, Abhi, at the Summit this February, and followed it with MO:MO at Pizitz Food Hall in April. (You guessed it: The latter is in large part because of Merlin and Doty’s love of his food.) Both feature Sainju’s twists on Asian cuisine, such as his famous Nepalese dumplings in an Alabama tomato vinaigrette.
“I love this town. I got offers to go other places, but I was like, ‘No, no. Even if I fail, I know I gave it a try,'” Sainju says. “Birmingham has to come up.”

More Tastemakers

• Jan Potter, owner of Dreamcakes bakery in Homewood and a fleet of popular cupcake trucks, studied nutrition at UAB. Discover how she used her expertise to develop delicacies for customers with special dietary needs in a 2010 UAB Magazine story.
• With the help of his partners, Eric Meyer turned a homebrewing hobby into Cahaba Brewing, based in Avondale’s historic Continental Gin. The Huntsville native, who’s also a local firefighter, graduated in 2001 with an individually designed major focusing on natural history, botany, and geographic information systems. Learn how his scientific background comes in handy for brewing popular beers in a 2015 story from UAB Arts & Sciences magazine.
• Idie Hastings says her 1986 criminal justice/psychology degree taught her to become better at observing, listening, and solving problems—all useful when you’re helping to run two acclaimed restaurants. Hastings, who attended culinary school after graduating from UAB, and her husband, Iron Chef champ Chris Hastings, helm the award-winning Hot & Hot Fish Club and OvenBird. Read more about her career path in UAB Arts & Sciences magazine.
• Maureen Holt had intended to become a physical therapist, but as she worked in restaurants to help pay her tuition, she fell in love with food. The 1992 psychology graduate went on to culinary school and to cofound Little Savannah, a restaurant in Birmingham’s Forest Park. She also discovered a passion to help up-and-coming chefs develop their culinary talent. Learn more in a 2015 article from UAB Arts & Sciences magazine.

Do you know of other UAB alumni adding flavor to Birmingham’s food scene? Share their stories with us.

Closeup photo of croissants held by Kristen Farmer Hall

• Learn more about the academic opportunities available through the UAB Collat School of Business, College of Arts and Sciences, School of Public Health, and School of Medicine.
Published June 2017