The iconic tomato salad is back on the menu at James Beard Award-winning Birmingham restaurant, Hot & Hot Fish Club.
Photos by Christiana Roussel, Chef Hastings, and Hot & Hot Fish Club
After twenty-seven years in business, there is one constant at Chef Chris Hastings’ Hot & Hot Fish Club—the annual arrival of THE Tomato Salad. Regular guests and social media followers alike await this moment each May when the growing season in places like Imokalee, Florida start producing bright, acidic, perfectly-balanced red globes of juicy deliciousness. If you are a tomato lover (and if you aren’t one, I might not want to know you…) THESE are the tomatoes that require very little adornment to honor their flavor and beauty.
As summer eeks on, and the growing season spreads north to Alabama, Chef Hastings purchases all the local tomatoes he can get his hands on for this iconic dish. I’d heard-tell that he had a favorite pearl-handled folding knife he liked to use when meeting with farmers, to quick-sample fresh produce for the restaurant. I wanted to see that knife and hear its story.
One hot Saturday morning, I meet Chef at the restaurant and we talk shop. Hot & Hot Fish Club is in its second location, having moved at the end of 2019 from its original location after the property’s owners planned an area redevelopment. Some might argue that the new location is even better than the original—located within the famed Pepper Place district of Birmingham, a cultural and culinary mecca which has hosted a weekly farmers market for more than twenty years. The location is bright and airy, outfitted with woodwork from local arboreal wunderkinds, Alabama Sawyer, and enough ironwork to appropriately pay homage to the Magic City. After a few minutes of talking restaurant shop, I ask to see the beloved agricultural knife that is the impetus for this story.
“I can’t find it,” he says.
My eyes must have betrayed my surprise.
“It is usually in my car or on me, in my pocket. I cannot believe it has gone missing.”
I can immediately tell he is more distraught over the knife’s disappearance than I am. He tells me that the knife was a gift from an old friend, and it has seen the inside of hundreds upon thousands of summer-ripe tomatoes. We both kind of pause for a moment, for I understand what it means to have a beloved kitchen tool that feels like an extension of yourself. He shows me a picture of the knife, and I sigh. It is pretty damn beautiful.
But things like this don’t go missing for long. They have a way of reappearing as slyly as they went missing. This is what we tell each other, as we begin to talk more about the famed salad. We discuss the components of the dish and he invites me to meet him at the Finley Avenue Farmers Market the following week. Here he has developed long-standing relationships with farmers and produce brokers—these are the folks who speak his short-hand for the quality ingredients on which he has built his culinary reputation. The pea sheller is running non-stop, and it is hard to hear over the noise. Chef selects a few bags of pink-eyes and they get loaded into his truck.
We head to the cooler and eat peaches-and-cream corn straight off the cob. Good heavens, it is sweet and delicious. Next, we examine the okra to see if it has been sorted and graded the way farmer Miss Edna used to do, back in the day. No one grows okra like Miss Edna did, he and the farmstand owner lament (there is a full ode to Miss Edna and her okra-growing prowess, in the Hot & Hot Fish Club cookbook, pages 80-81.)
Outside the cooler, we turn to boxes of tomatoes—both commodity and heirloom varieties. Hastings wields a hunting knife this time, and deftly cuts thick wedges for us to sample. Wow. Even the plain tomatoes are amazing this year. He selects a few boxes and those get loaded too. We agree to meet back at the restaurant where I can enjoy my own tomato salad at the Chef’s Counter—pride of the place.
Friday night in Birmingham and the joint, as they say, is jumping. My guest and I take our places at the counter to watch the show. An open kitchen is a testament to the strength of the team, and I never tire of the inimitable call-and-response of a professional kitchen, where “Fire the okra!” is met with a hearty “Yes Chef!”—culinary theater if there ever was one.
At the restaurant, thick tomato slices are layered with Hastings’ tweaked succotash and crispity-crunchety rounds of cornmeal-crusted fired okra. A swab of aioli and a drizzle of balsamic vinaigrette finish the dish while a shower of minced basil leaves adds some green—by sight and by taste. Before long, our own tomato salad arrives—adorned as an entrée with six of the prettiest head-on Gulf shrimp you’ve ever seen. They look almost caught mid-swim as they grace the top of tomato stacks. We tuck in and the oohs and ahhs just slide out of our mouths between bites. Summer on a plate, we agree. The season is fleeting, as it should be, which means we savor every bite. Perfect tomatoes will still be coming for some months now—from climes just north of here—and they deserve this treatment. Lucky for us, Chef Chris Hastings has shared his famed recipe with readers.
That pearl-handled knife is bound to show up sooner or later—surely before the tomatoes are gone for the season. We’ll celebrate its return with a big plate of the best heirlooms around.
Cook alongside Chef Hastings (virtually) on Monday, July 26, from 5:30 pm - 6:30 pm, as he guides you through his iconic tomato salad dish. From his kitchen at Hot and Hot Fish Club, Chef Hastings will share cooking tips and answer your questions as you prepare virtually from home. One week prior to this event, you will receive the recipe, ingredient list, pro tips, recommended wine pairings, along with the credentials to join the event. For additional questions, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Purchase your tickets here.