Alabama Chanin will host our final “Friends of the Café” Dinner of the 2014 season next Friday evening. The creative team from Jim ‘N Nick’s Community Bar-B-Q, including Nicholas Pikakis and Drew Robinson, will be on hand to direct the menu. I find it amazing that Jim ‘N Nick’s currently operates over 30 restaurants across the South and manages to maintain consistency and high standards. Their commitment to sustainability at such a large scope is outstanding. They care about every detail—from the farmers and hogs, to their choice of wood, to every seasoning and side dish…it seems they do it ALL. We caught up with Nicholas and Drew and persuaded them both to answer a few questions.
AC: What role do you play in the oversight of those individual locations? How involved are you in the day-to-day operations?
Drew Robinson: I don’t oversee any one restaurant. We have a lot of talented local owners, general managers, chefs, dining room managers, and very dedicated staff that operate great restaurants every day. I’m engaged in culinary development—new recipes, products, menus—for the company. Operationally, my role beyond that isn’t to oversee a restaurant as much as it is to continually convey the standards of our food and coach what our chefs and cooks do so that we are, hopefully, always improving.
AC: I once heard that you have no freezers—whatsoever—at any of your restaurants. Truth or legend?
DR: Truth. The “no freezers” rule is one of our core values that started with Nick and his dad, Jim. They believed in bringing all the ingredients in fresh—we start fresh and prepare fresh. They were closely joined at the hip with that value of theirs, so there was no question about doing that across the board in each of the stores. AC: You seem eager to collaborate with other individuals and organizations, and that is such a beautiful part of your company for me. How do you view the role of collaboration in your organization?
NICHOLAS PIHAKIS: For me at least, collaboration is a way of learning about other people and cultures and ways of doing things. Every time that we do a project that we get to have Ashley [Christensen], Donald [Link], or Sean [Brock] around to do one small dish, we end up spending hours talking about what they’re doing and sharing knowledge. We’re stronger than the sums of the individuals. Collaboration has always been a very educational experience for me. And we can then take all we’ve learned back to Jim ‘N Nick’s and apply it to things and projects that we do on a daily basis.
DR: This [collaboration] is another of Jim ‘N Nick’s core beliefs. Nick felt we would only be successful as a business if the business was involved in the communities we operate in. The community would support us as we supported the community. And that community over the years has grown as Jim ‘N Nick’s has grown, and we’ve developed more relationships. For instance, our relationship with Natalie and Alabama Chanin came from our relationship with the SFA. And that’s just one example of the organic nature that our community growth takes.
AC: Where do you think Jim ‘N Nick’s collaborations specifically impact communities?
NP: One thing that immediately comes to mind happened last weekend. The Fatback Collective came to Birmingham and raised several hundred thousand dollars for an organization close to our hearts, the Jones Valley Teaching Farm. It’s this great garden and urban farm in our community. The collaboration between Jim ‘N Nick’s, the Fatback Collective, and Jones Valley gave clout to the festivities. We saw that people came because we had so many great, thoughtful chefs there cooking. We helped to create a great chance to do a dinner and party fundraiser for a charity that’s close to our hearts—and in our backyard. AC: The Fatback Collective is an impressive team of chefs and barbecue enthusiasts. Can you tell us a little bit about what you do? What is the ultimate goal?
DR: I guess the unsaid, undocumented mission of Fatback is to learn and grow from each other and to use our combined strength and talents to work for the greater good. The most recent example was the Twilight Supper at Jones Valley Teaching Farm Nicholas previously mentioned. A large portion of the Fatback Collective got together to cook a grand dinner on the farm that raised a significant amount of money for the farm, which, in turn, benefits the community. At the farm, they teach children not just about healthy food, but where their food comes from, and about the cycle of our food systems. This is just one example of many.
NP: I am actually interested to hear everyone in the Collective’s answer to this question. We’re definitely a collection of chefs, writers, and pig cookers. The first big thing we did was go to Uruguay to learn about a completely different cooking culture. We then brought these ideas and learnings home to influence the way we cook. We definitely do a lot of charity stuff. And actually one of the biggest things we’ve done is go to the Memphis in May World Barbecue Cooking Competition. We aimed to show that humanely raised pork didn’t need to be overdressed, over processed, or altered any way in order to win the best pork in a barbecue competition. We went in to try and show people that really this kind of pork is good. It’s tasty. It’s not the enemy that would change pork for the worst. It’s even better than those pigs that are malnourished and mistreated and overmedicated. We wanted to show that something sustainable, like farm-raised pigs could work. And based on this idea, every time we do charity events together, we use sustainable products on a local level. We always talk about sustainability and promoting how good food grown this way can taste. That this is the way we should be growing, raising, and eating our food. Is that the end goal? I don’t know, but we are passionate about changing the way that people look at food, raise food, and eat food. We want to continue to learn and grow the Fatback Collective, but bringing the awareness to sustainable food is what I see as the primary goal for us.
AC: How do you think we can best educate the public and the next generation on the importance of responsible food production?
DR: Unfortunately, this is not a one-dimensional answer. But I think that it starts at home, versus starting in a restaurant. It happens through awareness about where our food comes from. That’s one of the reasons we value relationships like the ones with Jones Valley Teaching Farm, who educate children, and Will Harris, whose farming practices raise public awareness, so much. It’s a broad, difficult question that can be influenced by what people are serving in restaurants, but more importantly by making sure our children are learning about good, sustainable, whole food at home.
NP: I think a lot of things that we do with the Fatback Collective and Jim ‘N Nick’s is a start. There are some lesser-educated people who are nervous about the way that food will taste. I see a lot of ignorance surrounding sustainable food and how it’s not going to be as good or somehow will alter their diet—that making a change in our food system is not important. But it’s not enough to talk about how important and healthy it is; they need to taste it, too. We need to show them that it tastes better and it’s better for you. Tasting is believing. Something like what Jones Valley does with programs aimed at young kids, working to educate them about where food actually comes from and what goes into it, that our current way is not just better because it’s what we’re used to. I’ve found that people can be scared of change, but a lot of times change is for the better.
AC: What are the most important things consumers and home cooks should keep in mind when preparing meals and/or when dining out?
DR: You can tell a lot about someone based on where they spend their money. Support people whose values and missions you share, whether that’s a restaurant, grocery store, or farmer. For example, when you support us, you’re supporting the Fatback Pig Project and the fact that we give back to our local communities. Eat where you feel good about spending your money. As far as dining at home goes, eating at home often and spending time with loved ones over food is becoming a lost past time. It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive, but we need to promote connections. This idea has become a massive departure from the way people eat now and could impact the next generation. AC: Without the help of Jim ‘N Nick’s, our organic cotton project would have mostly melted into a field at the end of the season. Why did you decide to help us pick cotton?
DR: Because we identified with Alabama Chanin in a big way in terms of their approach to textiles. I think that what’s happening with the cotton project and what Natalie strives to achieve with textiles and clothing mirrors the way we feel about food. Plus, she’s our neighbor—right down the road from our home in Birmingham—and we see value in the idea of cultivating a whole community, not just a food community.
NP: I thought that was an awesome, awesome project. I didn’t know much about the cotton business beforehand—or the fact that organic cotton wasn’t a common thing—and just thought it was the coolest thing in the world that Alabama Chanin was trying that. Cotton is a big, important industry in our country. If we can change the way that that product is treated, it’s a cool way to go about agriculture that’s outside food. Cotton is a great sustainable product like everything else. I got so fired up about it. It helped me realize that it’s not just about what you’re putting in your bodies that matters, but what you’re putting on your bodies that matters, too. Join Nicholas Pihakis, Drew Robinson, Natalie Chanin, and the entire Alabama Chanin team at The Factory on October 10th for the last “Friends of the Café” Dinner of the year, a fundraiser for the Fatback Collective’s Fatback Fund, featuring Drew Robinson and Nicholas Pihakis of Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q. The evening will include cocktails and a four-course meal with craft beer pairings. The menu features regionally and sustainably-sourced fare, like Pickled Gulf Shrimp, Fatback Pig Project Porchetta, and White Oak Pastures Guinea Hens, with vegetables from the Jones Valley Teaching Farm. Friday, October 10, 2014 6:30pm Cocktails 7:30pm Dinner $88 per person (includes drinks and dinner) Purchase tickets here. Pre-paid reservations must be made in advance online or in-store. Casual attire Alabama Chanin @ The Factory 462 Lane Drive Florence, AL 35630 For more information, contact Alabama Chanin: +1.256.760.1090