As the James Beard Award-winning chef/owner of Automatic Seafood and Oysters restaurant, Adam Evans is fussy about the quality of the fish he serves, down to ensuring his suppliers use sustainable methods to harvest the raw materials he turns into appetizers and entrees.
But the chef is equally fussy about the potatoes he purees to accompany the restaurant’s Blackened Mahi Mahi, or deep-fries for its Fish and Chips. They must be organically grown, preferably by a nearby farmer with a passion for sustainability and quality – in this case, Andrew Kesterson of Belle Meadow Farm near Moundville.
“Sure, you can buy commodity stuff and save money, but I don’t want to eat that,” says Evans, a Muscle Shoals native who opened his Birmingham seafood shrine in 2019 and was named Best Chef: South by the Beard Foundation in 2022. “I want to eat what farmers are growing locally. I want that to be a staple here. That is what we should all strive to do.”
Evans’ locavore ethos extends to hosting the Saturday morning Birdsong Farmers Market featuring an evolving roster of growers and food producers, anchored by Belle Meadow.
“The farmers here in Alabama are better than anywhere else I’ve worked – in New Orleans, in Atlanta, and New York City,” Evans says. “I feel like my job is to provide their products to the community.”
Similar relationships between chef and grower are repeated throughout the state – and Alabamians are the beneficiaries. The same farmers who supply your favorite restaurants also sell directly to home cooks through myriad pop-up markets around the state, online sales, and delivery services like Birmingham-based till.
Revenue for Belle Meadow Farm, which does not offer CSA subscriptions, is split fairly evenly between sales at Birdsong and the Tuscaloosa River Market, and restaurant customers including Automatic, Brick and Tin, Chez Fonfon, and Bottega’s dining room and café.
Kesterson and his wife, Laurie Beth, grow about four dozen different crops over the year on their 12-acre farm, half of which is in production and the rest left fallow or under a soil-enhancing cover crop.
For the most part, he tailors his crops to the chefs’ preferences. Brick and Tin, in downtown Birmingham and Mountain Brook Village, features Belle Meadow’s heirloom tomatoes in a seasonal signature sandwich. Kesterson knows what chef Frank Stitt and crew want for his Birmingham restaurants, and plants accordingly.
But the relationship is different with Evans at Automatic, where the menu changes nightly. Evans sometimes suggests specific things to plant, but his main interest is in presenting whatever is in season locally, picked at peak flavor and nutrition.
“Having somebody like Adam who gets so excited about literally anything I would grow, just makes my job easier,” Kesterson says. “I don’t need to fret or worry as much, knowing that if I grow a good product of good quality, he’s going to be there to buy it.”
Diners can mark the local growing seasons by what’s on the plate at Automatic.
As summer gives way to fall, late plantings of okra are ready to pick at Belle Meadow. Arugula is abundant, and peppers are making a final push. Lettuces follow, then cold-weather crops like carrots, collards, and kale. By spring, radishes, beets, baby carrots, squash, and cucumbers appear. Summer is prime time for hot-weather crops including potatoes and heirloom tomatoes.
At peak season, practically every dish on Automatic’s menu includes something grown on a nearby farm, says Evans, who also regularly buys produce from Snow’s Bend, Mountain Sun, Harvest Farm, and Ireland Farms, along with mushrooms grown by Underground Forest, a vendor at the Birdsong market.
When it comes to sourcing locally, Adam Evans is a culinary evangelist.
“My job is to bring the best product,” he says. “I want to bring the best fish. I want to bring the best produce. And if I can do that, I’m doing my job.”