With Love, From Birmingham
From the kitchen at Veranda on Highland you made so many memories that will forever be a part of Birmingham and Alabama’s culinary history, as one of our best chefs.
After surviving Hurricane Katrina, as the former sous chef coming from Commander’s Palace (after an 18-year stint there starting as a line cook) I thought you would just land, start cooking, and expect a crowd to appear. But you never felt entitled, never took anything for granted. It was never about you, but always about pleasing others. And you immediately “took ownership” of Veranda as if it had your name on the door. In many ways it did… Birmingham’s gastronomes and foodies do not care who owns the building, they want to get to know the chef, and have the chef know them, and their lives. They want to boast about what “Chef” made them for dinner last night, myself included.
I remember how we met, like it was yesterday. Lunching at Veranda on Highland, you walked out of the kitchen, in your chef whites (embroidered with “Veranda on Highland, Thomas Robey, Executive Chef) and headed toward my table, in Papa’s Bar. In your soft, humble voice you introduced yourself. I had no idea you knew my name or byline. But I was honored to meet you! Your deep brown eyes penetrated with a happy and hopeful look, yet I also detected a hint of homesickness in your eyes. I could not fathom what it was like leaving New Orleans. Nor what it was like to see Commanders Palace, as it stood closed after Katrina, with sections of the roof torn off, flooded, and being gutted for renovation. And even worse most of your team was also scattered to the wind, other than Stan Reynolds who came with you to Veranda, to manage the front of the house. But I did understand the stage, Birmingham as a food city, you had just stepped onto. Expectations were high. You were out of your element. And I wanted to help if I could.
You were a pick up the phone kind of guy. And I am a never answer the phone kind of gal. You better be in my address book if you expect me to answer, and even still, I am most likely to let callers leave a message. You were and remain in my address book, as first name: “Robey,” and his last name: “Robey.” So, when “Robey Robey” called, I answered on the first ring because I knew you needed me. Remember before your first Valentine’s Day, you rang asking my input on your Valentine’s menu and pricing? You did not really need my advice, just my confirmation, because you had bigger plans than one special dinner. You planned to make holidays at Veranda annual happenings. And you did. Mother’s Day Brunch, Thanksgiving Brunch, and other special days at Veranda became a tradition for many, including my family.
But no matter whether we were dining at Veranda or cooking a turkey at home, you made holiday desserts for us every Thanksgiving and Christmas. You called and asked what I wanted, like a family member who needed to contribute to the meal. Praline Cheesecake Pie was always the answer. But your generous nature did not stop there. You sent other sweet treats too, including Peanut Butter Pie, and individually wrapped Pecan Pralines, tied with bows. Oh, my! My favorite movie is Christmas in Connecticut. And every Christmas when my family watches it, they see the two of us cast in the film. You are Chef Felix, who feeds me, as Elizabeth, the food writer, and makes everything “hunky dunky.”
Of all the chefs I have known, I have never seen another who was as equally gifted in both savory and sweet. What a double-edged gift God gave you! And you dutifully developed both to full potential. Your Trio of Soups, Soft Shelled Crawfish, and Shrimp and Grits are still legendary here. I loved it all for Sunday brunch, as the New Orleans style jazz band played tableside. To their playlist, my request of “Stars Fell on Alabama” was added. I can hear it now and see the steam rising from the white bowl of shrimp and grits with creole aromas. But one dish was never enough. You always sent other plates to the table including ones you were experimenting with. And when I would hold up my hands in surrender, you brushed me off, saying, “You have a husband. No need to diet. Eat and enjoy.”
One day you rang accusing me of owning every “Birmingham” domain name out there. I laughed and offered to start one up with you doing chef demos and sharing recipes and cooking techniques. And we both put it on our to do lists of things that never got done. I wish I still had all those videos because our times in the kitchen were my favorite. You taught me how to infuse oils in one segment, and the magic of cooking with duck fat, while demoing Belly on a Biscuit, and even more that I cannot even remember.
Another time you called asking if I could assist getting the Birmingham Chapter of International Wine & Food Society in for a private dinner because you knew I was a member. But the ask was less than the offer because your heart was too big for that. It also came with an invite to a private chef’s tasting lunch for three, two officers of the group and me, in the private wine room. You wowed my friends, Wimberly Miree and Ron Wallace, and me with one of the most memorable meals of our lives. And soon afterwards, Veranda hosted its first IWFS wine dinner. Then another, and another. And IWFS Members also became frequent patrons of Veranda.
After your first three years here, New Orleans was making a culinary comeback. Restaurants were reopening, and Southwest’s non-stop flight was also back. When I shared plans to travel there to the 17th Annual New Orleans Food and Wine Festival, you set me up with special lunches, with your mentors, the Brennans at Brennan’s and Executive Chef Tory McPhail at Commander’s. And the wisdom and experience of the Brennan’s influence, “delighting people who come through the doors” was evident at Veranda. And much like you, Tory did not just send what we ordered, he sent much of the menu and the entire dessert menu, as he stood smiling proudly in his whites and toque. Learning that he had a cookbook in the works, Tory later sent me the galley to it. After I wrote about the NOLA experience, you called me out, quipping… “Stan, did you know that Commanders had a car? And as Stan nodded no. Neither did I. But Tory sent Commanders car for Jan”… Not drawing a breath, next came, “Stan, Jan got the galley of Tory’s cookbook. Did I get the galley? No. I introduce those two, and they are out there publishing together, while I am sitting here with nothing, man.” What a comedian! You often had me in stitches with your dry wit and one-liners. But given I plan to publish this as a tribute to you, we won’t share all our stories.
Eventually, New Orleans and Commander's Palace called you home. The IWFS group who had grown to love not just your fare, but Robey, could not let you leave without a farewell dinner. Of course, you made it their best. As the evening ended, I spent the dessert course in the kitchen with you, where I belonged.
P.S. There is a NOCCA Scholarship in your memory.
Photos: Beau Gustafson
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