Getting to Know Local Chefs
There’s one thing all cultures have in common: a love for food. It makes an appearance at every major event, from bar mitzvahs to tailgates. The culinary arts bring people together over the one thing we all know to be true: the importance of a good meal. The Two Eighty community is filled to the brim with different eateries, all showcasing a particular theme or atmosphere. The three executive chefs you’re about to meet represent three different styles of cuisine, all guaranteed to end the classic “What are you in the mood for?” date night debate.
Birmingham is a city known for its strong historical presence, particularly due to its role in the turbulent civil rights movement of the 1960s. So how appropriate that Chuck’s Fish should be named after famed civil rights attorney Chuck Morgan. Morgan was raised in Birmingham and attended Ramsay High School. He moved on to the University of Alabama and later finished law school in Tuscaloosa. His name would later become a nationwide familiarity following the infamous bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church.
The day after the tragedy, Morgan delivered a speech critical of the explosive race relations prevalent in Birmingham at the time. His career as a high-profile lawyer in the fight for equality included nine cases he tried in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, many of which were pivotal in the struggle for civil rights.
Today, his namesake, Chuck’s Fish, offers something not typically found this far inland: the best seafood the Gulf of Mexico has to offer. Charles Morgan III, Chuck’s son and owner of Chuck’s Fish, owns a fleet of fishing boats that supplies fresh product to the restaurant daily.
“It’s all about quality for us,” general manager Brittany Campbell, says. “If it’s not perfect, we send it back.”
Executive chef Eleno Lopez says spontaneity and innovativeness are the key ingredients to any dish. His desire to be unique is what builds his menu. Lopez’s journey to the top spot in the kitchen, however, is a little off the beaten path. For starters, he didn’t go to culinary school. As they say, experience is the best teacher.
“Cooking wasn’t [originally] my idea,” he explains. “I got a job when I was 18 as a dishwasher, and I worked for a week. And then one of the line cooks was a ‘no call, no show’ one day. So the chef asked me if I wanted to work on the line.”
A chance opportunity would later grow into a career spanning 15 years.
“Since that day, I’ve had a love for cooking,” he says.
Chef Ryan Zargo of Bellini’s Ristorante—a bistro-style eatery that features steaks, seafood and traditional Tuscan Italian meals—got his start a little earlier.
“When I was a kid at home, we always cooked our meals. My mom always pretty much prepared everything from scratch,” he says, recalling the summers he and his family spent gardening and growing vegetables.
His path may have started with cooking, but it took a few twists and turns before it ended up there.
“I never thought I would be [cooking] my whole life, and for a career for that matter,” he says.
Zargo’s first venture was actually a 1 1/2 year long stint of semi-pro baseball. He played until a shoulder injury slowed him down. While recuperating from that, he decided to join the Marines, where he served four years.
“When I got out, I just didn’t know what I was going to do,” he says.
So he went to culinary school. He received a culinary arts degree but fell in love with gourmet-style cuisine and farm-to-table products. Zargo found his first cooking job at the Fish Market in Southside, working under mentor and chef George Sarris. He claims Sarris’ often authoritative mentorship encouraged structure and efficiency. Today, he acts as mentor to his students, using much of the same coaching style as his own teacher.
“It kind of takes you back a step when you’re training somebody,” Zargo says. “You go over some of the steps you may not do every day. It just keeps your mind fresh.”
Chef Katrinya Gonzalez of Fleming’s Steakhouse and Wine Bar says coaching others is a huge part of being head chef that most people don’t know about.
“There is quite more to being a chef than just cooking food. It’s managing this restaurant, in general,” she explains. “You’re not so much in the kitchen creating these dishes as you are coaching and teaching these new aspiring chefs to bring that passion out in them.”
Like Zargo, Gonzalez credits the younger chefs for the energy and lightness they bring to the kitchen. But since a large part of her job is being a teacher, her main focus is the promotion of aspiring chefs and affording them the same opportunities she had.
As she puts it, “What can you do to motivate these people to aspire to become what you are?”
Gonzalez’s passion for cooking began in childhood, as well. When asked who her biggest inspirations were growing up, she laughs and admits, “Honestly, my parents are horrible cooks.”
Her love for cuisine came from her grandparents, particularly her grandmother, whose love for pastries and sweets meant summers spent making candies and jams. Not surprisingly, Gonzalez wound up majoring in pastry baking and confectionary arts at Virginia College.
Her first job as a baker at the local grocery store of a small Alabama town eventually led to her career at Fleming’s, where she’s been for 14 years. In any profession, it’s important to love what you do. Chef Gonzalez says a part of why she chose culinary arts was simply because it was fun.
“It’s enjoyable, it’s ever-changing, and it doesn’t get stagnant,” she says.
A fluctuating climate may pose as a source of frustration to some, but to those looking to make cooking a lifelong career, Gonzalez says it’s just something to get used to.
“There’s been everything from figuring out how to manage difficult associates to working with the ever-changing presence of the restaurant industry and the demands of the consumers. It just doesn’t stop,” she says. “There are so many hurdles that you encounter, but you just have to keep tackling them day by day.”
These three chefs all took considerably different paths to end up where they are, but when asked why they chose culinary arts, they each said the same thing: it brings them joy. And at the end of the day, that’s arguably the only thing that matters. As they say, do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.