Veteran husband-wife restaurateurs spotlight Birmingham flavors with an international twist at their second concept, OvenBird.
Ten years ago, with an already successful restaurant under his belt, Chris Hastings started envisioning a second, more casual operation—one that melded live-fire cooking, small plates, locally sourced products, and all things Alabama.
Fast-forward to October 2015 when Hastings and his wife, Idie, opened OvenBird, a casual-dining concept nestled in downtown Birmingham’s Pepper Place complex. OvenBird was the couple’s second restaurant; the first, Hot and Hot Fish Club, opened in 1995 as one of the first farm-to-table restaurants in the Southeast.
“Since day one our menu has been out of the box,” Chris Hastings says. “I have built a level of trust over 20 years, and if I say we’re going to eat octopus or blood sausage or goat, the community says, ‘We’re in.’”
Mingling the rustic with the refined, OvenBird serves guests all manner of proteins, which are grilled, braised, or roasted over wood fires in everything from custom-designed cast iron ovens to wheelbarrows. The restaurant specializes in slow, delicate cooking that creates unique flavors. As Chef Hastings points out, when cooking with wood, it’s imperative to take advantage of every opportunity to coax out those natural aromas.
From the beginning, OvenBird has sought to pay tribute to Birmingham in every way possible and Hastings also takes inspiration from this Magic City. For example, Sloss Furnaces—an iron-production company turned historical landmark—created a trade publication known as Pig Iron Rough Notes, featuring recipes like squirrel stews, vinaigrettes, and salads, as well as correspondences from hunting and fishing trips.
“When I came across the Pig Iron Rough Notes and the ‘Gentleman Cooks’ section in my research for OvenBird, I was blown away,” Chef Hastings says. “The correlation between our city’s history and OvenBird— the use of cast iron in live-fire cooking worldwide and its relationship to the outdoor experience—was instinctively familiar to me and spoke to the hope of OvenBird.”
But beyond this local focus, Hastings also pulls flavors and historic cooking techniques from Spain, Uruguay, Argentina, Italy, and Portugal. In fact, Hastings named the restaurant after an inhabitant of Argentina. The Spanish word hornero translates to “ovenbird.”
“The naming exercise is fairly challenging because it’s hard to come up with something that fits,” he says. “I started doing research by looking at flowers, fauna, rivers, and nature, and up comes the national bird of Argentina: the ovenbird. It builds a nest that resembles a wood-burning oven.”
As far as the pecking order at OvenBird, Chef Hastings, who was named 2012 James Beard Best Chef:South and beat out celebrity chef Bobby Flay on “Iron Chef,” says his wife is the boss. Trained as a pastry chef, Idie Hastings oversees bookkeeping and the staff for both restaurants.
“When you work with your spouse everyday, it’s important to understand your responsibilities and stay in your lane,” Hastings says. “Don’t dive into every ditch. Pick your battles.”
At OvenBird, which is open for dinner Monday through Saturday and brunch on Saturday, tickets average $45, while Hot and Hot Fish Club posts average checks closer to $75. The OvenBird menu showcases local and global fare with offerings including Alabama Shrimp and Clam Fideos, with aioli, chorizo, and sofrito for $13, or Vegetable Paella served with Spanish-style bomba rice, saffron, and chorizo aioli for $12. Bestsellers include dishes like Beef Fat Candle with sofrito, herbs, and jus for $10; and Braised Goat accompanied by a soft-poached egg and grits for $14.
The local connection is literally built into OvenBird as the owners worked with local metalsmiths, designers, and stonemasons to create an environment that would reflect the community and introduce out-of-towners to Birmingham. “Our relationship with craftsmen is an important [aspect] to tell the story of this place. If people are visiting from Tokyo, New York, or Paris, they are going to be informed about exactly where they are,” Chef Hastings says.
OvenBird also created its own signature beer with local craft brewer Back Forty Beer Company. Light and crisp, this IPA is served with pine needles ferreted out by local foragers and sells for $5 a glass. OvenBird’s beverages account for 30 percent of revenues. Craft cocktails range from $6 to $10, and the wine list includes varieties from Argentina, Chile, Italy, Spain, California, and Oregon.
The restaurant, which employs 45, can seat up to 150 people and averages 400 covers nightly. Food costs run a lean 28 percent, and Hastings explains 70 percent of a restaurant’s opportunity depends on the ability to manage food costs. “So many people fall in love with owning a restaurant, but they lose sight of the math,” he says. “You have to follow the money or you are out of business.”