A Visit with The Hummingbird Way’s Jim Smith

This article is from the winter edition of Mobile Baykeeper’s print quarterly, CURRENTS. The magazine is mailed to active members who have given more than $50 in the past year. To get on the magazine’s mailing list, donate here.

by Caine O’Rear | Photos by Elizabeth Gelineau

What happens when a former Executive Chef for the State of Alabama opens a restaurant in the heart of Mobile’s Oakleigh Garden District? And not just any restaurant, an oyster bar. One that specializes in fresh catch and local produce.

A lot of things happen. A beloved old neighborhood gets a vibrant business, local fishermen and farmers have a market for their catch and produce, and Mobile gets one of the best seafood restaurants in the South. Jobs, culture, and a thousand beautiful nights are created. Everyone wins.

This is what Chef Jim Smith, owner of The Hummingbird Way, has done for the Port City. So it is that I found myself having dinner there back in early November, enjoying a flight of raw oysters and feeling more than a twinge of regional pride for Coastal Alabama’s culinary culture, when the bartender flipped the channel on the TV and … there we were.

“I’m here in Mobile, Alabama, in the Oakleigh Garden District,” chimed Guy Fieri’s familiar voice. A shot of the restaurant and the grand live oaks that line the neighborhood floated across the screen. Fieri is the host of the Food Network’s long-running hit-show “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives,” whose episodes on the Food Network have struck a chord with a national audience for almost two decades. His trademark spastic energy and no-collar vibe (think Sammy Hagar after the Red Rocker went blonde and you’ve got it) made for an odd mashup with the laconic nature of Mobile’s most historic neighborhood. It is as languorous as Fieri is not, but Fieri knows good food, and so it is no surprise that he has come here in search of America’s great eateries.

The Hummingbird Way is neither diner, drive-in, nor dive, but in its setting, out of the way on the quiet corner of George and Savannah streets, we should think of it as one of our local joints that is doing its part to keep Alabama’s Gulf-based seafood economy alive. The restaurant opened just two months before Covid-19 hit, which Smith said was indeed “nerve-wracking,” but it survived those white-knuckle days and was able to continue serving high-quality fare to its loyal clients due to the restaurant’s reliance on a largely local supply-chain. Ninety percent of the produce is sourced from a specialty local or regional farm.

Smith, a former top ten finalist on Bravo’s “Top Chef,” is still head of the Eat Alabama Seafood commission, and he remains highly committed to sustainability and sourcing the highest quality sea- food from the Gulf as well.

When it comes to oysters, the Hummingbird Way features the best it can get its hands on: New England, New York, Virginia, Apalachicola, Washington state, and more. They even had oysters from the Netherlands this fall that were harvested overseas only three or four days before being served. But true to form, my flight that night featured a few samplings from Alabama. I can say without bias that my half shells from Murder Point and Admiral Shellfish Company exceeded the rest of the competition.

If any doubters remain who have not slurped down a dozen or two of our local bivalves from the kitchen, keep in mind that Chef Smith is also a close associate of the James Beard Foundation and a former winner of the Great American Seafood Cook-Off. They wouldn’t be in his restaurant if they didn’t stand up to the best in the world, local or not.

A native of Panama City who grew up in Troy, Alabama, Smith says Mobile was a natural spot to land, and chock full of potential. “I feel like Mobile is one of these cities that is on the verge of becoming one of the next big food cities in the South. You know, much like a Charleston or Savannah.”

His idea to open a restaurant in the Port City stemmed from his time keeping the governor fed and happy and it was then that he also became head of the Eat Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission.

The commission was formed as part of an effort to inform the public that Alabama seafood was safe to eat in the immediate years after the BP oil spill, and that the State employs rigorous testing procedures and monitoring to make sure that’s the case. Today, the commission’s efforts are more about embracing the quality and sustainability efforts being made in the Gulf of Mexico to harvest the best seafood possible.

“Because of that job for the commission, I spent a lot of time on the beach, in Bayou La Batre and Coden, and here in Mobile,” Smith says. “I always felt that Mobile was just a really cool town that needed more good places to eat. And that’s really how I started thinking about opening a restaurant in Mobile. That’s really the roots of it.”

During our talk one afternoon at the restaurant, Smith notes that Hummingbird is part of the James Beard Foundation’s Smart Catch program. Under the program, all of the seafood purchases are tracked and turned over to the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, which then assigns a score based on the seafood used by the restaurant. Smith says Hummingbird is one of the highest ranking restaurants in the country for the third year in a row. “We’re very proud of that here,” he adds.

When I asked him about the imported shrimp crisis we detailed in the last issue of CURRENTS, he says that consumers need to be more proactive. As noted in the article, some 90 percent of the shrimp in this country are imported. Most of that supply is raised in desultory conditions. Shrimpers along the Gulf Coast, and places like Bayou La Batre in particular, are struggling to stay afloat, or are opting to get out of the business altogether.

“I tell people all the time that if you’re going to a restaurant and you have a giant platter of shrimp and you’re paying $7 for it, you can almost guarantee that those shrimp are coming from some places that you do not want to eat them from,” Smith says. One of the best things about dining at Hummingbird is knowing exactly where the seafood has been swimming.

“One of the easiest things that local consumers can do to support the seafood industry in Alabama is just to ask, like, when you go to your fish market or your restaurant, ask them where the shrimp is from, where the oysters are from. They should be able to tell you, and if they’re not wanting to tell you, that should be raising red flags in your mind,” he says.

“Imported shrimp, one of the reasons people think they’re clean, is that they don’t taste like anything. The reason why they don’t taste like anything is because they’re often blasted with a bunch of chemicals, and that also zaps a bunch of the flavor. For me, shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico, no matter what the size, no matter which variety you’re getting, have a flavor that is indicative of the Gulf of Mexico, and they have a little bit more of an assertive flavor, which is better. You want shrimp to taste like shrimp, you don’t want them to taste like nondescript meat.”

As a local treasure, The Hummingbird Way contributes to the unique value of our city and it is what a national show about food must find to wow its audience. After seeing this episode and the others in Fieri’s spotlight on Mobile’s food scene, I have no doubt the show’s 650,000 viewers now want to come to the Port City. And when they do, we all will win.

As a local business, the restaurant is one part of a chain that is necessary if we want to keep the flavors of the Gulf, and of Coastal Alabama, alive for another generation. That chain and those flavors are what keeps this prized eatery in flight. And those flavors require clean water.

“I mean, look at this neighborhood. So quaint, so quiet. And in the middle of it, there’s a restaurant!” beamed Guy Fieri at the show’s opening. The moment ignited a visible moment of pride for the staff, who glanced up at the screen intermittently as they shuffled in and out of the kitchen and continued to dispatch their nightly duties. The patrons in the front dining room, many of whom had the air of regulars, beamed with excitement too, for our little neck of the culinary woods was being celebrated on national television.

But even as it was a night for celebration, tellingly, the owner and chef whom Fieri called a “wild man in the kitchen” did not come out to watch the episode on the jumbo screen. He remained in the kitchen, faithful to the task at hand.

Recipe: Oysters Casino at The Hummingbird Way.


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