By Donna Cornelius
Journal feature writer
Brys Stephens knows how to tell a story–on a plate and on the pages of his new cookbook.
The 41-year-old Birmingham native is the author of “The New Southern Table,” which devotes each of its 13 chapters to a classic Southern ingredient. From okra to watermelon, the foods on which he focuses made frequent appearances on his childhood dinner tables.
But Stephens, a food writer and consultant who now lives on Sullivan’s Island near Charleston, S.C., has come up with fresh, creative ways to cook these usual suspects. His world travels expanded his culinary boundaries—and he shares those adventures in his cookbook.
“I grew up seeing soul food being cooked in my grandmother’s house,” he said.
But a family trip to France when Stephens was a teenager opened his eyes—and his palate.
“As we traveled all over Provence, I saw fresh rabbits, game birds and cured sausages hanging from the rafters of butcher shops,” he writes in the cookbook’s introduction. “Fromagiers offered eggs and potent, farmy cheeses, and bakers displayed fragrant fresh-baked baguettes and pastries.”
Stephens later lived and worked in France and traveled to places like Northern Africa, South America and Southeast Asia, allowing him to see and taste the way familiar Southern foods are used in other cultures. The more than 100 recipes in his cookbook combine homegrown ingredients with Asian, French, Mediterranean and Latin influences.
After graduating from Mountain Brook High School, Stephens studied English at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. He then worked in marketing at an English-language city magazine in Paris and studied at the Cornell University photography program in Rome.
He returned to the United States in 1997 and worked as an apprentice at Birmingham’s Hot and Hot Fish Club with James Beard award-winning Chef Chris Hastings.
“I waited tables and worked in the kitchen,” Stephens said. “I’d spend like an hour pulling thyme off stems or cutting basil. I worked with their catering group in people’s homes.
After earning a law degree and MBA from Wake Forest University, Stephens practiced law for a couple of years, he said.
But his love of food—cooking it and writing about it—proved more appealing than the legal field. He helped found Cookthink.com, a food and cooking website, and wrote articles for publications including Bon Appetit, Garden and Gun, Charleston City Paper and Charleston Magazine.
“I did consulting work for other cookbooks, and with Cookthink, I worked to verify recipes and put them on the site,” he said.
Creating his own cookbook was a lengthy process, he said.
“It took me a couple of years to put the book together and get a book deal,” he said.
Stephens also did all the photography for his book.
“I’d cook something, put it on a plate, shoot it—and usually eat it,” he said, smiling.
Stephens was in Birmingham last month to promote his book. Alabama Booksmith hosted a book signing, and friends and family members gathered at a party in his honor. His publicity tour was set to include stops in Washington, D.C., New York, Virginia and Florida.
“I’ll be participating in the Charleston Wine and Food Festival, too,” he said.
Stephens said he tried to make the recipes in his book ones that the home cook could interpret.
“With the okra chapter, for example, the first recipe is basic and really allows you to taste the ingredients. You go from easier to more complicated,” he said.
But the more adventurous cook won’t be disappointed by Stephens’ recipes. In the peanut chapter, he adds the humble legume to a chicken and vegetable stew. And butterbeans are unexpectedly used in bruschetta with parmesan and basil.
He often gives suggestions for ingredient substitutions. In the introduction to his recipe for Bowtie Pasta with Guanciale, Yellow Squash and Pinto Beans, he tells the reader that bacon or pancetta can be substitute for guanciale, which is cured pork jowl.
“I can eat that dish several times a week,” he said.
Stephens said that as a child, he wasn’t a picky eater.
“I’ve always been a vegetable eater,” he said. “But I will say that the rice I had growing up wasn’t very inspiring.”
He fixes that problem in his rice chapter, which includes recipes like Chard, Walnut and Gorgonzola Risotto and Forbidden Coconut Rice with Mango.
Choosing which ingredients to focus on in his cookbook was sometimes a tough call, Stephens said.
“I included figs, but you could make an argument that muscadines are more traditional in the South,” he said. “And I considered the tomato, too, but I had only so much space.”
While many of the recipes in “The New Southern Table” were inspired by his visits to exotic destinations, some have their roots closer to home.
“The Collard and Feta Pie was a tribute to all the Greek restaurants in Birmingham,” he said. “And the lamb stuffed in collard greens rather than cabbage leaves is another of my favorites.”
Stephens said the current food scene in Birmingham is much changed from years past.
“In the 1950s, you had TV dinners and those congealed salads,” he said, smiling. “After World War II, it’s like we left farming behind. We didn’t go to farmers markets in Birmingham—they were forgotten.”
Chefs like Frank Stitt of Highlands Bar and Grill helped change that, Stephens said.
“Frank Stitt and his disciples caused a sea change,” he said. “Now, you can get a taste of Provence in downtown Birmingham.”
“The New Southern Table” is published by Fair Winds Press. It’s available in Homewood at Alabama Booksmith, at Table Matters in Mountain Brook and at Barnes & Nobles Booksellers at the Summit. It’s also sold on the Amazon and Barnes and Noble websites.