Sandy and I met up with Chef John Hall in his modest North Avondale home. Always a host, he offered us drinks as we chatted around his dining table.
Almost as soon as we began talking, John let out a laugh and told us, “I never talk this much.” I do believe John may be on the quiet side at times – for example, in last week’s post, I describe his shy, reserved demeanor while serving us at our recent meal. But John is anything but quiet when it comes to his love for food, his cooking philosophy, and his plans for opening a new restaurant and its place in Birmingham’s food scene.
When John graduated from Birmingham’s Irwin High School, he knew he wanted to go to college, but didn’t know for what. So he moved to Atlanta to live with his dad while he figured it out. He started off working for a movie theater, and enrolled in junior college at Atlanta Tech. One Monday morning, while riding on the subway, he made an important observation – the commuters around him looked miserable. He asked himself, “what can I do for a profession that I would enjoy going to work every day?” His mind turned to memories of making cookies with his mom, of being in the kitchen with his dad and uncles who he describes as great cooks, and to his favorite childhood TV show, Great Chefs of the World. No one in his family had made a career out of it, but food had always been an important and meaningful part of his life. He explains, “I thought, I’m going to be a chef. And that was it.”
Soon after that, while waiting in line at the bank, John saw a man dressed in a chef’s uniform , floppy hat and all. John followed him out of the bank to his catering truck and struck up a conversation. This led to John’s first cooking job at Anthony’s catering company. There, he learned the basics: how to peel a carrot, cut an onion, make a stock, wash dishes.
John’s next move was to look for work in a restaurant. He walked the streets of Atlanta looking for a restaurant that had a “warm feel.” He came upon the Pleasant Peasant, an Atlanta institution, and soon was plating salads, desserts, working sautee, and learning now to work the grill.
The head chef at the Pleasant Peasant was a graduate of the prestigious Johnson and Wales culinary school. John set his sights on attending too: as he puts it, he thought, “I might as well just try to shoot for the best and see what happens.” This turns out to be an important recurrent theme in John’s rise to success.
John’s experience at Johnson and Wales’ Charleston campus was transformative. Living in Charleston, a Southern port city, allowed him to explore diverse ethnic foods from around the world while also experiencing American and Southern food in a whole new light. For the first time, he ate prawns, filet mignon, low country cuisine, Andouille, and “fish that wasn’t cooked all the way through.” He continued his studies at the Johnson and Wales Rhode Island Campus, earning another Bachelors in Hospitality Management. All the while, John cooked at local French and contemporary American restaurants, gaining experience.
John’s first went abroad during culinary school. He was an exchange student in Germany, where he gained his first global perspective on food. This was followed by an internship he arranged in Luxembourg with Leah Linster, the only female Bocuse D’or winner, at her classic, old-school French restaurant. John describes this as an “unbelievable but difficult experience.” He worked every day, and while he and his colleagues were treated like family after hours, yelling was a normal part of working in such a traditional kitchen. He observed how seriously everyone took their jobs – from the four chefs to the servers, who wore suits and often handed their trade down generation after generation.
Just after he finished culinary school, John lost his best friend in a car accident. At that point, he knew he was committed to a career as a chef. So he said to himself, “if this is it, if this is what I’m going to do, I’m going to try to do it at the best level possible. At the very least, I can say I tried.”
John came back to Birmingham to plan his next move. He went to the Southside Branch of the Birmingham Public Library and came up with a list of the top 10 U.S. restaurants. He applied to all of them.
Weeks later, he was on his way to New York to begin a new phase of his life. He worked at not one but three of the best restaurants in the world, with mentorship from chefs at the very top of their fields. He started at Grammercy Tavern, a contemporary American restaurant that is consistently rated one of the best, most popular restaurants in New York City. He worked every position in the kitchen, and after four years there, he had achieved the coveted position of saucier – just one step below the sous-chef. After four years, he left Grammercy Tavern for Per Se, an American/French restaurant which the New York Times has called the best restaurant in New York City. John describes Per Se as “the most organized, most disciplined, most professional kitchen in America.” All the station cooks were from the best restaurants in Manhattan. He described the learning curve as so steep, “you find out things you didn’t know you were capable of doing.” Then he took his first management job as a sous-chef at the famed Momofuku, a restaurant that has a reputation for being a little anti-establishment, and an underdog in the New York food scene. During this time, John began making and delivering pizza from his Brooklyn apartment in the middle of the night, an operation that quickly became known as Insomnia Pizza.
At this point, John had a choice: he could keep bouncing around to different top restaurants in New York, or he could do something different. He also wanted to be closer to family. So he moved back to Birmingham armed with some ideas about what to do next. Insomnia Pizza became his next venture – Post Office Pies.
Philosophy: “I was never like anybody else, I didn’t want to be like everybody else”
John explains that when he went to culinary school, a shift was underway. Celebrity TV Chefs and books like Anthon Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential had glamourized the industry, and there was a massive influx of students eager for stardom. John was determined to be part of the old guard of “old school” chefs. This prompted him to take a departure from many of his classmates and pursue rigorous, classical training.
John has a work ethic to match his training. He explains that being in a white male dominated field, being an African-American (or being a woman, he adds) means “I had to be better, work harder, be more determined and more driven to set myself up for the best opportunities.”
An important lesson learned from his time in New York is the way big cities force people from all walks of life to mix. You walk down the street past movie stars, and you realize that in many ways, they are just like you. This served as the inspiration for the communal tables at Post Office Pies, which are meant to be places where people from all walks of life come together. “You want to make it welcoming and warm and OK for people to mingle. Make a friend.”
John has a very “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” kind of mentality that is hard to describe. Remember, this is a guy who worked his way up from dishwasher at a local catering company to the sous-chef at Momofuku. His restaurant has the same grassrootsy feel. Insomnia Pizza became Post Office Pies. What about his next venture?
Next steps: casual fine dining
About a year ago, John was working as the manager at Saw’s, and Post Office Pies was about to open. He knew that he would want to open a fine dining restaurant in Birmingham, but it would be a few years before he could. He realized the importance of keeping up his skills in that area. John began hosting private fine dining dinners, about which I blogged last week. He explains that the dinners were “a good creative outlet for me, a good way for me to keep up a certain way of thinking.” They’re also a way of showcasing his fine dining chops – a great prelude to his next step.
Just the same way that Insomnia Pizza became Post Office Pies, John plans to turn these Contemporary American dinners into a restaurant – one with his trademark high quality yet easygoing vibe. You wouldn’t have to get dressed up, or go for a special occasion. “I want to change the perception of fine dining in Birmingham. I want to remove the white tablecloth. I want a place that you could go to at least twice a week, but have the execution of a fine dining restaurant.” His restaurant will be a “hodgepodge of my experiences, my culinary journey, not to sound to cheeseball-y. I want to bring back what I saw, what I tasted, and what I experienced: here it is, in a nutshell.”