At almost any workplace, you can hear employees talk about their co-workers with a closeness and familiarity; after years of working alongside one another, your officemates can (in some cases) begin to feel like family. In the past, that has actually been the case here at Alabama Chanin. Studio and dye house directress Diane Hall has worked alongside her daughter—who has also been one of our artisan stitchers. Some of our other artisans have been sisters, mothers and daughters, aunts and nieces, cousins, and almost any other combination of relations. And all these years, it never occurred to me that I would have the opportunity to work with my son, Zachariah, known by everyone here as “Zach.”
The company that has become Alabama Chanin started in New York City, first in Brooklyn Heights and then at the Hotel Chelsea on 23rd street, in a borrowed apartment that was my first hand-sewing studio. The apartment was three rooms and a tiny kitchen. The front room, looking out over 23rd street, housed my bed, ironing board, and sewing center; the middle room was Zach’s. In those early days, he was enlisted to carry wet fabrics to the laundromat around the corner, keep me company on jaunts to the 26th Street Flea Market, and generally assist where needed.
I guess I should have known that he would eventually come to assist me in my design efforts. In fact, at my graduation from the School of Design at North Carolina State University, they asked Zach to stand, as he had completed most of my college education with me. He stood to a round of applause as the youngest “designer” to graduate from the program. (He is blushing as I write this…)
Zach grew up too quickly—like all children—and after those New York City days at the Hotel Chelsea, he found a passion for food. He worked his way up the culinary ladder starting in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and continuing in restaurants across the South, served as a private chef, and eventually opened his own catering company here in Florence, called Magpie + RUTH. (Visit the café to get a taste of his famous Pimento Cheese.) Since fall of 2014, Zach has been in the kitchen at The Factory Café and is now our staff chef—helping to manage daily service, developing recipes, consulting on menu preparation, and working with our vendors to get fresh, local ingredients. Most recently, he has begun managing our new catering endeavors (call for more information).
When Zach was young, you could almost always find him outdoors. As an adult, he held onto his love of nature and wildness—traveling quite a bit: camping, rafting, hiking, and cooking his way across the country. He worked for a time as an Ocoee River rafting guide, a skill that came very naturally to him.
These days, he spends most of his non-work time at home with his young daughter, Stella. He says that he loves working for and with his family and finds the café right in line with his family’s history: good food and community. He laughs, “My family has always been full of excellent cooks. There’s a standard there; it inspires me.”
P.S.: Zach says that his culinary path was inspired by Bill Neal and specifically by meals at Crook’s Corner—but also by the work of Craig Claiborne alongside Anthony Bourdain’s book, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.
Zach’s (locally famous) Shrimp and Grits recipe is a direct homage to Bill Neal’s work and a version of that recipe will be served at our upcoming (and first) 2015 Makeshift Dinner series in collaboration with Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman’s—an homage to bacon.
Learn more in Zach’s favorite book Remembering Bill Neal: Favorite Recipes from a Life in Cooking. And visit Zach at The Factory Café.
Photos by Abraham Rowe