Celebrating Our Culture
Let's Eat! Deep South Cuisine
An Interview with Chef Bob
by Joyce Dixon
According to Chef Bob, “To excel as a cook, passion is the main ingredient.” The appreciation of food preparation runs strong in Vaningan’s ancestry. A descendent of North Carolina share cropping settlers and Cherokee blood, the family moved to Alabama and started a legacy for cookery based on Deep-South Cuisine.
Sir Robert "Chef Bob" Vaningan is only one of six Chefs in the world to obtain the rank of Knighthood. This honor was be bestowed on him by His Highness Prince Ambroise Dolgorouky d' Anjou, Prince Regent of the House d' Anjou of France.
His cooking adventures have taken him all over the world. Vaningan was part of the Deep-South Team during the Navy’s 220th Birthday, where regional cuisine was served during the celebration at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
Chef Bob has returned to Birmingham, Alabama, where he can be seen on “Good Day Alabama” each Tuesday. You can also visit his restaurant called The Chocolate Cottage. The name alone is mouth-watering. Let’s eat!!
Isn’t all Southern food fried?
It is a myth that all Southern food is fried. There is, of course, Southern fried chicken, fried green tomatoes, fried okra, fried grits, fried catfish, fried hushpuppies, fried pork chops, fried turkey....well, that is a lot of frying! OK, I admit the South is a fry happy place. That's why all Southerners have smiles on their faces! The soul of the South is from a past some want to forget and yet every day we are reminded of that past. Okra came from Africa. Watermelons came from Africa. Black-eyed peas and Turnips came from Africa. This is where the soul in soul food comes from. Generations of slaves are honored every day as we cook what they cooked, and the love and passion of the remembrance is the heart of the Deep South.
How is food a way of showing love in the South?
Food is love. The Holy Bible speaks of food many, many times and expresses that to serve and eat with someone (to break bread) is to enter into a covenant, a commitment to care for that person, even if for only that meal. Cooking is work, and some people prefer not to do it. But the people who love to cook show it by taking their time to prepare something to make another person happy. I remember when I first learned that food equals love was the day my dad came home from the Viet Nam War. My mother, grandmother, and all my aunts worked for two days preparing the Deep South grand gastronomic feast. Every thing edible was presented that evening. That's showing love with foods.
Your grandmother’s tray of cubed apple and cheese after kindergarten is a long way from milk and cookies. Were you raised with a sense of presentation of a meal?
My grandmother Mama Payne as she is affectionately known (86 now), raised me most of my life. She was an emergency room surgical nurse. I used to walk to kindergarten and on my way home my mouth would water thinking about those tart apples and cheese cubes lanced with tooth picks and arranged carefully on a cartooned platter. That was an example of food is love. My mother and my aunts were all great cooks, and each one had a different style of presentation and method of preparation. When they were all together for family functions, I would watch them the day before, planning who was going to make what. To me the kitchen was THE place to be. The steam rising from the pots, the smells, the tasting, oh Lord, the tasting! I really never put it together that I was learning menu planning and preparation at that age until you asked me this question. Thank you! I love learning new things about myself.
Your family history is rich in connection to food preparation. Could you tell us how your North Carolina ancestors provided food to the Biltmore Estate?
My great grandfather was John Carlton Hooper, salesman extraordinaire. He had a small share cropping farm and sold stoves farm to farm by horse and buggy all over the Carolina Mountains. Being the salesman he was, he sold chickens and some produce to the chef at the Biltmore Estate. After saving a little money, he moved to Birmingham where his great uncle, Judge Morris, was the 2nd and 3rd Mayor of Birmingham. His dream was to open the finest restaurant in Birmingham.
Your family opened the first restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama, to serve the meal on a first tablecloth. Could you share a story about Hooper’s Café?
The famed Hooper's Cafe, white tablecloth restaurant, was located at 2300 3rd Ave. North. Any person over 60 remembers Hooper's Cafe. The special of the house was a 24-ounce t-bone (hand cut with a hand saw), baked potato, salad and hot biscuits for a whopping 35 cents -- tip not included. He insisted on an all male staff with tux and white gloves. It was the place to go.
Your own rise in the culinary world is charmed – from Chef McKnielly to being bestowed Knighthood to cooking at the White House. What do you credit for getting you where you are, and why you aren’t still cooking at a chain restaurant?
I have truly led a blessed life of unusual favor and opened doors. I know it is because cooking is my God-given talent, my calling, and my purpose. I believe when you find that, everything else falls into place perfectly. I was also very focused and driven. I believe if you have found your passion and you are driven and NEVER quit or give up, you will always prevail. I don't cook at a chain restaurant, because they take short cuts and are more concerned with the bottom line than the perfectly prepared dish.
What can one of the readers expect from a visit to your restaurant in Birmingham – The Chocolate Cottage?
You can expect food that has been cared for -- from the purchase of it, to the storage, cleaning, preparation and final presentation. You will know when you eat at my restaurant everyone in my kitchen loves what they do with a passion.
Are there any plans to expand from your weekly cooking segment on Birmingham’s Fox 6 “Good Day Alabama Show” to other media opportunities? What has been your favorite experience doing the segment?
I love my regular spot on Fox 6 “Good Day Alabama” every Tuesday. I have been doing that spot for 6 years. Mr. Dennis Leonard the GM is a wonderful man to put up with me so long. I would like to do more TV although I am a large part of the production of the foods at the restaurant, so it would be difficult to be away too long.
What is your favorite menu for Thanksgiving dinner?
My favorite Thanksgiving menu is composed of the simple things. Perfectly roasted turkey, cornbread dressing, sweet potato casserole, homemade cranberry sauce, green beans, creamed corn, turnip greens, carrot cake, pecan pie, and candy sweet iced tea. Let’s eat!
What treat do you leave out for Santa Claus?
Since I know Santa personally, I know he loves freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, iced cold milk, and maybe a slice or two of gingerbread cake.
Sites of Interest
Filmmaker Angelena Vaningan with "Kill Caesar" (cameo role by Chef Bob, her dad)
© 2003, Joyce Dixon, All Rights Reserved