Teach a Man to Fish
Birmingham Chef Adam Evans of Automatic Seafood and Oysters Reels In Success
Photos by Caleb Chancey
Adam Evans grew up hating seafood. He loathed the very cuisine that defines his cooking today. “One time, everyone was going to eat seafood,” he recalls. “I didn't want to go because I didn't like it. There was a mini golf place next door, so I played there while my family ate dinner,” he chuckles.
Like so many of his Southern peers, Evans frequented the Alabama Gulf Coast as a child, vacationing at familiar spots such as Gulf Shores, Orange Beach, and Perdido Key. However, it wasn’t until a stint at Tom Colicchio's restaurant, Craft, in New York City, that he discovered his calling. There, under the watchful eye of chef Damon Wise, Evans learned the finesse of fish. “That's when I fell in love with seafood. We would braise fish and we would roast fish. As I got better, he would expand the techniques that we would use.”
Inspired by his work in New York, Evans went on to open The Optimist in Atlanta alongside Chef Ford Fry, and later his own restaurant, Automatic Seafood and Oysters in Birmingham, which celebrated its first birthday in spring. Below, Evans opens up about starting a restaurant with his wife and about learning from some of the industry’s greatest minds, and he describes why a pause in the seafood industry during COVID-19 is a blessing in disguise.
First, congratulations on your one-year anniversary! I am sure this birthday looks a pinch different than what you thought it would. What’s it like to look back on where you were a year ago and where you are now?
Looking back, it was a lot of excitement. Everything was new, and it was a fresh beginning. We were excited, and we had a great team in place. I love the opening [of a restaurant] in the first year. It’s a very special time that I'll never forget.
You and your wife, designer Suzanne Humphries, are both from Alabama. What brought you back specifically to Birmingham?
Well, before my wife and I even met, we both had separate goals of moving back to Alabama and starting our own businesses. She wanted to design, and I wanted to open a restaurant. It just happened at the same time for both of us, and we got to work together. I read about Frank Stitt in Birmingham, and I knew one day I wanted to go to Birmingham to open a restaurant in my home state. That was my goal the whole time.
What was it like for you and Suzanne to work together to produce this space, and how did you make your two separate goals come together as one?
Every restaurant needs a designer, and I was very lucky because I had a designer who not only knew me, but knew how to make the setting for the type of food that I wanted to cook. She understands how to set the tone and mood by the design. It really can be a powerful thing to be able to get that right for a restaurant, and she did it. That's one of the major attributes of our success.
You have quite the background and have worked with some of the country’s most illustrious chefs and restaurateurs, such as Tom Collichio and Ford Fry. What did you learn from working with these and other chefs?
I would say these experiences are a large percentage of everything that I do now. There's one chef that taught me everything about cooking, there's another chef that taught me about branding, and there's another chef that taught me about how you should work with the front of the house. I think all of my experiences have come together to give me the ability to open and do what I do now.
At the time of this interview, in the midst of COVID-19 restaurant regulations, there is a lot of snapper on your menu, ranging from a fish sandwich to a ceviche. How do you challenge yourself to take one fish and recreate it differently again and again?
We were able to get a lot of beautiful snapper from this particular fisherman. When we opened the restaurant, we made a commitment to buy only the whole fish, and if we were going to do that, we had to figure out how to actually use the whole fish. I'll make [snapper] the familiar way, but then we scrape the bones, and we can smoke that meat to make a smoked fish dip, or add it to a batter to have a smoked fish hush puppy. We're literally taking as much of that meat as we can and are using it.
Is that why I noticed it's oysters and fish, versus, say, crab on your menu? To capitalize on that whole fish mentality?
Crab is very expensive right now, and I found that when things are like that, it means the industry is stressed and it's hard to come by. I want to change the way I'm a consumer. I don't want to consume based on everybody else’s desires. Instead, I'm going to lay off of that popular item because there's something else out there that someone is catching or harvesting right now that is abundant. I want to shift my thinking and the way we approach the menu to adapt to what the Gulf has to provide at any given moment.
The oyster industry is fascinating. Can you speak to how you source your oysters? And does the saying “eat oysters only during months that end with ‘r’ ” still hold true?
We usually have anywhere from 10 to 12 different varieties of oysters on the menu. I'm pretty particular to Murder Point Oysters because the owners are from Alabama. I know them, and I have a relationship with them. It is acceptable to eat oysters year-round because of refrigeration. The fact is, the oyster industry is so heavily regulated that it's very uncommon to find anything wrong with an oyster.
This interview will be a part of our Harvest issue, which I think is a lovely nod to harvesting from the sea, not just from the land. How do you look at the Gulf as your personal garden?
A silver lining to this situation is that the fish themselves are thriving right now. They may be one of the only living things that are not really affected by this. It doesn't exist in their lives. It really makes me happy to know that the fish—especially during spring time when they're laying eggs and spawning—have a chance to reproduce in a way that will hopefully make everything more abundant. It's like a pause on the whole commercial fishing season, which has never really happened. So when I think about the fish thriving, like in a garden, it makes me very happy.