“Hey Bandit, can you hand me my knife?” Victor King, the co-owner of The Essential and executive chef, asks as he pops his head through the metal double doors into the kitchen.
The nickname Bandit comes from her business, Baking Bandits, that she started several years ago with her daughters. She wanted her girls to grow up knowing how to create simple, beautiful foods on their own. Even years later, Kristen looks back fondly on those times when she and her daughters would spend hours in their kitchen experimenting with recipes and leaving them at the doorsteps of unsuspecting neighbors.
Things have changed quite a bit for Kristen in the last five years. After leaving her job at the University of Alabama in Birmingham to pursue a field that more closely reflected her passion, she and Victor opened their first business venture together, Feast & Forest. But from the beginning, a business partner was not something she really wanted..
“For me, partnership had always been super complicated,” Kristen says. “I was in another partnership where I had lost myself trying to lift another person up.”
“You say to yourself, ‘Oh, it could be worse,’ but also, ‘It could be better.’ I was just not raised with that sense that it could be better,” she says. “You could actually have a great life, work hard, love people, be kind and successful, and that was OK.”
Kristen says that her relationship with Victor works so well because they both have an appetite for learning about new pastry and culinary techniques.
“I think that it’s rare that you find a partner who wants to do the same kinds of things that you do,” she says. “Because we care about the same things, it’s been easier to grow and evolve and change as our business has grown.”
Feast & Forest ended up being more than they could have ever expected. What was supposed to be a quiet coffee shop and bakery quickly turned into frenzied chaos. With only 16 seats in the entire place, people were eager to get a spot at the popular restaurant.
“We had been open about three months. I walk out into the dining room and there is a family physically altercating over a table. I was like, ‘I don’t know what we’ve done, but I did not plan for this,’” she says.
After Feast & Forest took off quickly and unexpectedly, the pair decided that they needed to start from scratch. One of the most beloved cafés in Birmingham had turned into something that was causing the pair much more stress than joy. Thus, the idea for a refined café and bar located in the heart of Magic City was born.
Open seven days a week, The Essential is a place where visitors can enjoy their morning coffee, have a midday lunch meeting, or indulge in a cocktail during a late-night date. With seasonal menu items that range from tempura mushrooms to Nutella Pop-Tarts, there is something here that everyone’s taste buds will fancy. Less than a year after opening their doors, we had a chance to sit down with Kristen and ask her some of our questions.
Why do you think Birmingham needed a place like The Essential?
Birmingham has such amazing food, but there are limited options between fine dining and fast casual. We wanted to fill the niche of the refined neighborhood café—where everything is made from scratch but in a more relaxed environment. And we're open seven days a week, which was an essential part of this venture.
Where did the name The Essential come from?
When Victor and I were dreaming of a name for The Essential, we wanted to find a single word to capture our hopes for the space. We wanted to build a café that was available all of the time: early mornings with coffee, a sunny lunch on the patio, or dinner with friends and family. We felt like “essential” captured the essence of our heart for this venture.
What was your inspiration for the design of The Essential and its menu?
The seasons are the main inspiration for the menu at The Essential. We start with the best that each season has to offer and build a menu around those ingredients. It's often a challenge, but this pushes us to evolve and grow as chefs.
What is your favorite menu item?
That’s a hard question to answer. My favorites have been our Chicken Liver Mousse Eclair (unexpected uses of pastry), Spaghetti with Gulf Crab and Lemon, and Gulf Fish with Romesco—the superhero of sauces.
How did you find these recipes?
I built out most of them. The way that I build a recipe is that I do a ton of research. I have a bachelors in biology, so I’m a science person. I love science, and I think that’s why I love baking so much.
What do you hope guests experience when they visit the restaurant?
It sounds a bit cliché, but we want people to leave The Essential feeling well-loved. We want our food and our service to echo the heart that we have for our farmers, our ingredients, our profession, and those we love.
I heard that one of the dining area paintings is your mother’s. Could you tell me a little bit about it and why you chose to display it?
Yes! This painting was a gift to my mother from my grandmother, and it’s something I have always loved. It represents family and the incredible challenge and gift that motherhood brings. I think about my two daughters every time I see it.
What are your hopes for the future of The Essential?
We hope The Essential becomes a staple of Birmingham. We want it to be a place that exudes warmth and creativity every time you visit. Whether it’s your favorite spot for brunch, your destination for a croissant, or your go-to date night place, we want to be there.