Black Rock Bistro: An unforeseen delight thrives in downtown Jasper
by Margaret Dabbs
Nov 02, 2011 | 4517 views | 0 0 comments | 38 38 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Margaret Dabbs
Margaret Dabbs
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As we have all seen in the last six months, quite often horrible tragedies lay the foundation for positive, needed change and unexpected pleasures. Lindsey and Greg Kilgore retreated to Walker County from New Orleans after the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. Six years after their unplanned move, these young chefs are still here, happily ensconced in their small neighborhood café, Black Rock Bistro.

Lindsey grew up in Hoover, but has family roots in Walker County and made annual visits here for Thanksgiving celebrations. Remembering helping her mother and her grandmother in the kitchen for many years as a youngster, she developed an interest in cooking in high school home economics. Although this course was focused on very basic food preparation, it opened a door and allowed Lindsey to see cooking as a career for herself. Putting that idea aside for a while, she enrolled in the University of Alabama at Birmingham thinking she would go the “normal” route and get a college degree. But whenever she considered career plans, cooking kept beckoning to her.

Lindsey’s dad worked in the food sales industry most of his life and ultimately retired from Kraft Foods after 25 years. So after she spoke with him about a career as a chef, he set up informational interviews for her with chefs he had gotten to know while doing business with them. These professionals were candid with her, intricately describing the long hours, demanding physical work, and nightmares of their vocation. However, as Lindsey questioned the chefs further, they all admitted that they loved the business and could not imagine themselves anywhere else.

Greg was born and raised in Oakman in a family he described with a smile as “amazing cooks.” “They are Southern cooks… old school Southern cuisine.” Two of his great-grandfathers were farmers and one of his grandfathers was a farmer, so his family raised much of what they ate and Greg grew up appreciating the freshest of products — eggs, beef, pork, chicken, and honey. About five families “community gardened” 20 to 25 acres, so he learned to can and preserve as well.

After owning and running convenience stores, Greg needed a challenging career change, so he moved toward the restaurant business. He and Lindsey attended Culinard, Culinary Arts Institute, in Birmingham, just a semester apart, and met after graduating while working at Fire, a French Creole restaurant in Mountain Brook’s Crestline Village.

Greg, laughing at himself, describes his first day at Fire as a brand new cook. “My chef said, ‘Here is your wood-burning grill. This is what you are cooking on tonight. These are your dishes.’” That was it, and Greg was left on his own. “I was terrified for two or three weeks.”

At Fire, Greg and Lindsey’s mutual enthusiasm for Creole cooking was born. After they both worked there for several years, Greg accepted a position at Bottega, one of Frank Stitt’s restaurants. Then they decided to move to New Orleans to further explore the art of classical French Creole Cuisine. While they both were offered jobs at Commander’s Palace, one of New Orleans most highly regarded restaurants, they chose smaller restaurants where they felt they could learn more on a day-to-day basis.

La Petite Grocery on Magazine Street ultimately became the learning ground for both of them. This restaurant was the center of attention for much of the restaurant media at that time as the chef, Anton Schulte, and the restaurant, were on the rise. So the kitchen was always buzzing with photographers and journalists, including representatives from the Wall Street Journal, Bon Appétit magazine, The Washington Post, and Gourmet magazine. Greg explained, “It was a very exciting place to work because of all the fanfare.”

Hurricane Katrina brings the chefs home

Katrina ended Lindsey and Greg’s New Orleans experience after only eight months. However, with the chef’s theory that La Petite’s cooks should learn the entire menu, those months were packed with knowledge and invaluable experience. As they worked their way through every station in the kitchen, Greg and Lindsey expanded their skills and expertise as they soaked up the world of French Creole cooking in the matchless New Orleans atmosphere.

Although they had the opportunity to return to New Orleans and their jobs at La Petite once some sense of normalcy returned to the city, the ties to home and the overall stability it offered helped clinch the decision to stay in this area. Then almost serendipitously, when they really were not looking for it, Greg and Lindsey discovered suitable restaurant space and Black Rock Bistro was born on Nov. 18, 2005.

For the last six years this pair of energetic, dynamic chefs has worked to show their patrons genuine quality while combining their full-flavored Creole repertoire with what their patrons know and love about local cuisine including fried catfish, fried green tomatoes and fried okra, fresh corn, tomatoes, and peas. As Lindsey described, “We just really like to bring both worlds together as much as we possibly can on our menu.”

The Black Rock menu changes frequently. Outer Banks swordfish, Bayou La Batre oysters, Gulf of Mexico shrimp, and blue crab were recently offered.

“Absolutely wonderful” farm-raised rainbow trout from McCalla along with salmon airmailed from Scotland also make appearances. The essence of their craft is not found in anything fancy and Lindsey noted their three overriding preparation goals, “very simple, very well-seasoned, and very well-cooked.” Additionally, these two chefs consistently use the freshest and best ingredients they can buy.

While offering this explanation, they laughed and summed it up in unison, “Keep it simple.” Greg added, “Let the ingredients speak for themselves.”

Since they keep a hands-on approach in the running of their restaurant, at dinner Lindsey and Greg are rarely found in the kitchen working together when the restaurant is open. On most evenings one of them is out front, essentially taking care of their guests and being sure all aspects of the restaurant are running smoothly. But they do work well as a team in the kitchen and have tried to be a team there during lunch in the last few months.

Recognizing and respecting each other’s strengths, Greg pointed out, “We’re very different in our strong points in cooking. Lindsey is a better grill cook than I am. She is generally a better butcher than I am.” Lindsey quickly responded, “But when it comes to fish, Greg can take down a whole fish in a matter of minutes where it would take me a lot longer… Greg is a great sauté cook.”

Creating a successful small restaurant

The depth of each chef’s cooking skills combined with their natural ease and humble warmth with their patrons, created the perfect environment for Greg and Lindsey’s success in establishing a lasting small restaurant which is just a “touch above” what others in the area offer. They know their regular customers, welcome them like family, and acknowledge the importance of their regular customer base. In addition, “new faces” are received with equal interest and enthusiasm and feel just as comfortable in the restaurant as those who are there every week.

Lindsey and Greg also understand the importance of their staff. Over the years they have worked to develop a solid core staff they can depend on to work with a sense of pride in their duties. Lindsey noted, “I couldn’t live without them.” Greg agreed, “They’re family too.”

Over the years Lindsey and Greg have become familiar faces outside Black Rock as they share their time and talents cooking for a number of charity events. They have also taught cooking classes in the kitchens of several churches and in their restaurant. Both recalled the Girl Scout cooking class as one of their favorites.

A group of about a dozen scouts ages 10 to 12 came to cook in the restaurant while working on the requirements for earning a cooking badge. With chicken on the menu, Greg started them at the very beginning of the food preparation process by handily demonstrating how to cut up a whole chicken much to their amazement and delight. The girls prepared the entire meal, roasted chicken with black beans and salad, and then dined with their scout leaders and several of their mothers.

Lindsey’s turkey preparation pointers

Thanksgiving is just a few weeks away and both chefs noted at this time of year they get a multitude of questions about cooking turkeys. Remembering how daunting this task once seemed, Lindsey recalled her first experience cooking the turkey for her family’s gathering. At that time she was a student at Culinard and convinced her grandfather, who was the family meat chef, to let her try to meet the high standard he set for turkey preparation.

Lindsey explained how the pressure was on — “For him to let me cook it was a big deal… So I knew I had to impress him.” She explored cookbooks, scoured magazines, and even turned to one of the Culinard chefs for advice. Once the finished product was on the table, she watched for her grandfather’s response. He told her, “That is the best turkey I’ve ever had in my whole life.” Lindsey was elated and after recovering her composure, she realized his opinion of her effort may end up being one of the most significant cooking compliments she will ever receive. At that point, her grandfather also graciously passed the turkey cooking reins over to her.

In sharing her turkey cooking tips, Lindsey suggests “introducing fat” to the turkey since they are lean birds, even leaner than chicken. She chuckled as she pointed out, “Fat is not your enemy. Fat can be your friend when it comes to cooking turkey.”

Lindsey uses the food processor to make a paste which will hold the moisture in and add extra flavor to the turkey. The base of the paste is cubes of unsalted butter. She works with unsalted butter since you do not know how much salt is in salted butter. “You can control your seasonings better if you use unsalted butter.” The other paste ingredients include uncooked bacon cut in small pieces, fresh thyme leaves or other herbs of choice, and salt and pepper. Lindsey gently eases the turkey skin away from the meat and applies the paste over the entire turkey and inside the cavity along with the onions, celery, carrots and apples.

Making

downtown home

Work weeks are long for this couple — 65 to 70 hours each. However, in the process of getting their new location on 19th Street in downtown Jasper ready for the move, as they scrubbed, laid floors, painted and decorated, the hours increased to about 100. Lindsey remarked, “I never realized until we started this move that opening a restaurant is hard, but moving one is even harder because everything has to be timed down perfectly for you not to be closed for too long.” In spite of all the details involved in licenses, inspections, installation of appliances, and remodeling, Greg and Lindsey proudly point out that the restaurant was only closed for lunch during the week of the move and they did not miss a dinner night.

In its first home, Black Rock Bistro found its niche as a laid back comfortable restaurant which offers extraordinary food in an atmosphere where everyone feels like family and the patrons never move straight to their tables because there is always someone they know to greet and share a few minutes of conversation. Keeping those treasured attributes, the new location adds inviting warmth which creates the genuine sense of a neighborhood café. Because the dining area is less spacious, and includes cleverly painted bench seating and smaller tables, the staff is allowed to offer service with efficient ease. Bill Young III’s paintings continue to add an intrigue to the décor and they are now accompanied by She-She’s quirky but lesson providing folk art.

Several weeks ago, just before their dinner guests arrived for the first night in the new location, Lindsey walked through the café. As the tables were set with white cloths in anticipation of the evening, the lights were dimmed, and tempting aromas of the inaugural dinner specials floated from the kitchen, she recalled, “I told Greg I feel like I have been, for the last six years, borrowing someone else’s restaurant…and now we have our own…This is our own. We put our blood, and sweat, and tears into every tile… into everything.” Obviously pleased and agreeing with her thoughts, Greg summed up their feelings, “This is what we wanted. This is where we wanted to be.”

Six years ago, Hurricane Katrina brought Lindsay and Greg Kilgore home. Black Rock Bistro, an unforeseen delight which grew out of their retreat from a monstrous storm, now comfortably thrives in downtown Jasper as a unique neighborhood café featuring an independent spirit and a pair of gifted chefs.

Margaret Dabbs is a freelance columnist who resides in Jasper. Her column appears every other Wednesday in the Lifestyles section. Comments and suggestions are welcomed by contacting Dabbs at 387-2890