Shoe polish. It is an unusual “ingredient” to find in a commercial restaurant kitchen. But once you get to know the story behind that shoe polish, you’ll want to know if every chef has some in their work pantry. To understand why the shoe polish is there or why it is important to note at all, you need to first learn the history of that chef, Randall Baldwin, and the kitchen he runs at Dyron’s Lowcountry.
Sonya and Dyron Powell opened their Crestline eatery back in May 2009, offering local diners a taste of the cuisine that has always spoken to the couple: fresh fish and shrimp entrees, complemented by regional ingredients like Carolina Gold rice or pink-eyed peas. And every dish—from Manchester Farms Carolina Quail to Pan Seared Greg Abram’s Red Snapper—is teeming with fresh seasonal produce. On the menu in winter months, you’ll find lots of braised Cullman collard greens, wild mushrooms and bright citrus flavors. Spring menus feature the requisite tender first peas and asparagus, while summer brings in still-warm berries from nearby Petals from the Past in Jemison.
These menu selections are second nature to Chef Randall now, but that was not always the case. When he first started at Dyron’s Lowcountry several years ago, he was coming off a long stint under the coveted tutelage of Chef Frank Stitt (Highlands Bar & Grill, Chez FonFon, Bottega, Bottega Café). Baldwin grew up cooking by his mother’s side, learning her techniques and tastes. (“She grew up poor in Creole, Alabama, catching bream to cook for her little brother and sister.”) As a high-schooler on a trip to Birmingham with her, they dined at Highlands Bar & Grill where Randall swooned over every course, vowing to one day cook under Chef Stitt. A few years later, he took that pledge to heart, enrolling at the venerable Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York. Halfway through his studies there, his mother became ill, and he flew home to South Alabama to be with her. On her deathbed, Randall’s mother made him swear to finish what he’d started and pursue his dream of fine cooking.
It is that pact he made with his mother that governs every action Randall takes today.
In the early days of helming the kitchen at Dyron’s Lowcountry, Randall produced the type of fine dining entrees that he’d mastered at Highlands Bar & Grill. He worried over every ingredient and how they would come together on the plate and if diners would warm to his cooking. He often wondered what Chef Stitt would think about the way a particular dish was executed. And while the food Randall was turning out wowed the front of the house, he wondered if he was in the right place, doing the right thing.
When Lucy Buffett came calling in 2014, with an offer to run a kitchen at the beach, the saltwater in the Saraland-raised chef’s veins urged him to hang up his chef’s whites and head south. He stayed there for about a year, but his absence at Dyron’s Lowcountry in Crestline left a serious void. Another chef took over the kitchen where he tried to replicate Randall’s dishes and Dyron and Sonya’s vision. But that chef’s inattention to detail and lack of passion forced Powell to make a run to the beach and implore Randall to return to Crestline.
And for all of us, we’re lucky Dyron’s offer was one Randall could not refuse. Moreover, the chef who returned to Crestline had mellowed a bit and matured a lot. He had a newfound confidence in his tastes and predilections that were immediately felt in the dining room. Dyron notes, “The best thing that could have happened to Randall was to go spend a year at the beach. He finally found his rhythm. When people started responding to his food, he really got comfortable. A fried seafood platter with a baked potato is all Randall. He is not spending time trying to be something other than his truest self. It is not hoity-toity food. It is just food that is well executed.”
Dyron’s has always been the type of restaurant that prided itself on being local and comfortable. “We are busy all the time!” Dyron says. “But to get here, I had to listen to what my guests were asking for. They wanted a very high quality meal at a reasonable price in a relaxed atmosphere. And that sums up exactly what we offer. It’s a sweet spot.“
And with Randall back at the helm, it is even more so. The chef has changed how he operates the kitchen, choosing to come in early for the tasks like braising and making sauces. He has a trusted crew, some of whom have been with the restaurant since its inception, while others are newer, like his sous chef James Habshey, who is as passionate about the food they produce as Randall is. During dinner service, the chef will man the expediting position, ensuring each dish that goes out is perfect and meets his exacting standards. It is a process that took time to develop but it is one that works. “Randall is that rare breed of chef that pulls his own weight in the kitchen, which lets me learn a whole lot,” James says. “He expects me to manage my station but carry out his attributes and maintain the kitchen the way it should be done.”
And that is where that shoe polish comes in.
James shares that Chef Randall makes a point of polishing his chef’s Danskos before and after every shift. Which, when you think about it, says everything you want to know about his passion and his drive, his attention to detail and high standards. It is an outward sign of the promise he made to his mother on her deathbed, that he’d finish what he started: being the best chef he could be. During a typical night of service, he might never leave the kitchen for the dining room, but he makes darn sure that his chef’s coat is pressed and his shoes are shined. It is just who he is and how he operates. He expects the same level of engagement from everyone around him. “He gets woken up in the middle of the night by dreams of concepts he wants to execute, plates he wants to put together,” James says. “He has to write them all down. Also, he hates short cuts and can’t tolerate those who try and take them.” Dyron nods, adding, “He feels that way about the front of the house too.“
There is a smooth humming rhythm to the dining room, too. Part of this vibe can be attributed to Randall’s return, but mostly it is just that Sonya and Dyron have found their sweet spot as well. The couple moved to Cullman with their two young children a little over two and a half years ago. They split their time at the restaurant, which is only 45 minutes, door-to-door. Sonya is on site Tuesdays and Fridays while Dyron oversees things on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Sundays and Mondays are pure family time, which has provided them with much-needed personal balance.
Asked how this move has affected their restaurant business, Dyron notes, “The best advice for anyone in business is: hire the right people and get out of their way. I’ve done that. Now, I am not getting on Randall’s back about the daily menu. I mean, if he is going to do something crazy, he’ll talk to me but I trust him. As far as having a general manager, I have two folks, Daniel and Keri, who split these duties. Keri handles the floor while Daniel manages the bar. And Daniel does other basic general manager things. Keri knows everyone in Mountain Brook now and knows what to look for in a great server, and how people like to be treated.“
The Powells are always looking for new ways to delight their guests and will be making a few improvements to the restaurant—new draperies for the main dining room, more comfortable chairs for the patio. They will also be changing their Point of Sale program soon which will give them the flexibility to better note their guests’ tastes (“wants two olives in his dry martini,” “likes lime, not lemon, in her water,” “birthday is June 30 and he LOVES our bread pudding”—things like that.) “People tell me all the time that they call us the ‘country club with good food’!” Dyron says. “We’re going to start a loyalty program soon and plan to call it Dyron’s Lowcountry Club.”
This thought circles Dyron back to where it all began: “My goal for Dyron’s Lowcountry was to have a restaurant where people could come and eat and it would feel like they were sitting in my dining room at home. I think we’ve finally done that.”
Dyron’s Lowcountry is located at 121 Oak Street in Crestline Village. To learn more visit dyronslowcountry.com or call 205-834-8257.
What’s Next for Dyron’s Lowcountry?
The move to Cullman was great for Sonya and Dyron Powell, as well as for their children. The family lives on Lake George and can enjoy a more relaxed pace of life there. Dyron is a graduate of Saint Bernard Preparatory School and wanted his children to experience that same private, Roman Catholic education, which he says they’ve embraced. He and Sonya have plans to open a restaurant in Cullman later this year. Conceptually, it will be a smaller version of Dyron’s Lowcountry, offering some of the same best-selling menu items. Chef Randall Baldwin will oversee that venture with the Powells, and they all look forward to the challenge. It is probably a good bet that there will be shoe polish in that kitchen, too.