And the award goes to…

Anyone in an industry where awards are handed out annually has dreams of hearing their name at the end of that sentence. But for Mountain Brook native Hannah Black and her restaurant partner, Carla Perez-Gallardo, they could not have been more surprised at hearing their names as one of the James Beard Foundation Award semi-finalists earlier this spring. Even more remarkable is that their global cuisine restaurant, Lil’ Deb’s Oasis, in Hudson, New York, happened to be closed for renovations at the time of the announcement.

Hannah’s dad Phillip, a Mountain Brook city council representative and member of the Mountain Brook Planning Commission, was surprised by the news too. When asked if Hannah grew up loving to cook, he laughs and notes, “You know, that is the mystifying thing in all this! I am the cook in our family and I joke with people, telling them how funny this is because she just got chicken fingers and fish sticks for daily meals. That’s not really true, but no, she never cooked growing up. None of my girls did!”

Hannah Black and Carla Perez-Gallardo with their staff at Lil’ Deb’s Oasis

So where did that love of global cuisine that is the foundation for Lil’ Deb’s Oasis come from? “She found this passion in her travels,” Phillip says. “I can still remember her calling me, saying, ‘Dad, I’ve got a one-way ticket to South America.’ I took a deep breath and just let that sink in.  She spent a year just traveling all over South America. We raised our girls to be independent and self-sufficient, but I had no idea that’s how it would translate! She has hiked the length of Chile by herself and spent time in Bogota, Columbia.

“And once I even got an email from her in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where she’d been working in a commune, and got a commission to paint a mural on a public building. I thought, ‘That’s fantastic! What’s the public building?’ and she said it was The Institute for the Blind. It is a funny story, but I like how it illustrates that she could end up in another part of the world and still end up getting a job painting something that everybody will see for decades. She’s very resourceful.”

To learn more, we caught up with Chef Black via telephone after the big announcement to see how the good news was settling in at home and in her adopted community just north of New York City.

CONGRATULATIONS! What has life been like, since learning you and Carla have been nominated in the category of Best Chef in the Northeast by the estimable James Beard Foundation?

Thank you! Yes, well, the interesting thing about this is that our restaurant has actually been under construction for the past three months, so everything has been up in the air. We have so many different things we are focusing on right now – the construction, the pop-ups, trying to plan everything for the next season. So, it is not like it has interrupted anything right now.

During restaurant’s renovation, how are you able to continue wowing customers with your food, and keep your treasured staff on board?

We originally thought we could stay open while the renovations were being done, but after getting into the project, the engineer told us that work would go much faster if we closed completely. So that was the decision we made, and it presented quite the challenge.

Lil’ Deb’s dishes, clockwise starting from left side: ceviche mixto (shrimp, fish and octopus) with plantain chips; heirloom tomatoes with peanut salsa macha; and whole fried branzino with ginger/citrus vinaigrette and a pea shoots and herb salad

It sounds like it also presented you and Carla with some unique opportunities to try new things.

For sure. We’ve enjoyed having to stretch our brains a little on the creative process, working in different kitchens, for different audiences. There is a restaurant in Portland, Maine, called Cong Tu Bot (which was also nominated in the same category as Lil’ Deb’s Oasis). We are friends with the owners through Instagram and social media and feel like they have a similar energy and presence. They reached out to us before the (semi-finalists) were announced, saying, “We like you guys so much and lots of our staff have been to your restaurant. We’d like for y’all to come up to Portland to do a pop-up.” At the time, we were really slammed but flattered. But Portland is like five hours away, so we thought, “We’ll try and figure this out.”  Then when we closed, we thought, this is the perfect time.  So, we’ll drive up there, take our whole staff and do a pop-up there.

What are some other unique ideas you’ve been able to try recently?

We did one pop-up in Hudson for five weeks in this one space that is usually only open during the day. We created a Mediterranean cruise theme with a design vibe that was very different from our regular restaurant. We did Greek food for one week and Italian food for another week, then French food and Spanish food, and new American. It was fun to dress up the restaurant every week and play to some of the iconic dishes of each cuisine.

That sounds very different from the way you might have grown up in Mountain Brook. Tell us, did your upbringing or background inform your cuisine choices much?

You know, Birmingham has changed so much since I grew up there. There were always some really great restaurants—my parents took us to the Frank Stitt restaurants and I worked at Satterfield’s—so I had that sort of exposure to good food at an early age. But in terms of global cuisine – the kind of things we serve at Lil’ Deb’s—I did not have that kind of exposure growing up. It was more Southern fusion.

The interior of Lil’ Deb’s Oasis

What type of things did you learn working at Satterfield’s and Bottega that you use at Lil’ Deb’s Oasis?

I was a hostess at Satterfield’s, and I think what I learned there was the family aspect that comes with restaurant life. I have always loved that. Everyone is on the team but doing different jobs; there is a real familial bond. I never worked in the kitchen at either restaurant.

At the time I was just home from college (Rhode Island School of Design) where I was studying painting, and I did not know that was what I might want to do. (Hostessing) was just a job but I found I liked that energy, that vibe of a restaurant. So, even now at Lil’ Deb’s Oasis, I can combine all of that. I like to bounce around and check on customers and see what’s going on in the front of the house and the back. Carla and I divide restaurant tasks pretty naturally. In the broad sense, we have similar skill sets, but she is really good at hunkering down and focusing on one thing, pretty intensely. But I am better at juggling more things—clearing tables, running food, anything that needs to be done.

Would you ever consider moving back home to open a restaurant – in Alabama or Birmingham, or Mountain Brook?

Well, I don’t know if I would ever move back full-time. My husband is here and my community is here, but it is definitely an interesting idea. It is funny, after getting the (JBFA) nomination, I had so much positive feedback from the Mountain Brook community, it is definitely something that crossed my mind. I guess if the pieces fell into place, it would be a good thing for the community there. I think we could create good things there.

Updates after our chat with Hannah: Hannah and Carla were not named finalists this year for The Best: Northeast James Beard award this year, but it re-opened following renovations in April.

Hannah’s Twist on Spaghetti

Hannah’s resourcefulness comes in handy in the kitchen. On a recent trip home, Hannah was craving homemade spaghetti so she and her dad headed to Whole Foods for the ingredients. “She didn’t even have a grocery list!” her dad Phillip marvels, “but she made the marinara from scratch, just selecting things from the produce department and then picking up some fish sauce, which was most unusual. The final dish was unbelievable and I could not eat it fast enough.”

We asked Chef Black to share that famous spaghetti recipe with us and – true to form – she provided her version which is very off-the-cuff…

“Well I don’t have a real recipe for that sauce because I just was playing around, making it up- but I love making tomato sauce.

Here’s what I would do:

Start with 3 cloves of garlic sliced real thin. Simmer in olive oil on low till garlic is soft but doesn’t darken in color, a few minutes.

Add a can of crushed tomatoes, a few basil leaves, and season to taste with fish sauce (instead of salt). I recommend adding a little bit at a time because it can be powerful. Add a little fresh crushed black pepper, some toasted and ground cumin seeds. Add a cup of water and simmer for about 10 mins for the flavors to meld. Take off heat and season with lemon or lime juice.”