When the former state of Alabama executive chef Jim Smith was thinking up a name for his new Mobile restaurant that opened in January 2020, he wanted something whimsical but also relevant, so he drew on his fascination with the world’s tiniest bird.
“I’ve always thought hummingbirds were kind of like chefs,” he says. “Flying around so fast, but with intention, looking for the sweetest nectar.”
Thus, he dubbed his eatery The Hummingbird Way. It made good sense when he chose it, but today, it’s perhaps more apt than he could have imagined a year ago. Hummingbirds are small but mighty, and they’re amazingly adaptable and resilient. To survive a pandemic within months of opening, The Hummingbird Way has channeled its namesake’s spirit.
Described by Smith as Southern-inspired and upscale, yet approachable, the restaurant is taking advantage of its coastal locale, making delicious use of fresh Gulf seafood and also putting an emphasis on oysters with a raw bar. According to Smith, the concept was enjoying initial success. “The restaurant business is hard to sustain; our margins on food are so small,” he says. “But in January and February, we did what we wanted to do; the numbers worked.”
Then COVID-19 hit.
“We’ve now seen a 70 percent drop in revenue from the first two months,” he says. Last spring, when the doors were closed for in-person dining, Smith and his wife pulled long days, doing as much takeout and delivery business as they could to stay afloat. When the state allowed restaurants to re-open with COVID-19 restrictions in place, Smith and his team were ready and diligent.
“We put a premium on safety and on ensuring guests saw and felt that,” he says. They did, judging by how often the restaurant has been filled to the 50-percent capacity allowed. “Even full, we obviously have fewer guests than pre-pandemic, but those who are here say they’re so happy to be out and to know they’re having a safe experience, so I think we’ve won some loyalty with that,” he says.
The Hummingbird Way’s inviting atmosphere, stemming in part from its environs, has earned admirers, too. It’s housed in two connected buildings on the corner of a quiet residential area. One had originally been a small neighborhood grocery store in the 1940s, but most recently had been another restaurant; the other building is an 1870s-era home.
Walking around the sleek, sophisticated dining room in the main space, Smith points to prints, paintings and other depictions of hummingbirds on the walls and discusses the trying times his fledgling business has survived. He does it with a solid grin and a bit of grit underpinning his mellow voice, making it clear he’s proud of the way he and his team have faced the challenges.
“I am pleased with how we’ve weathered this storm,” he says. Even if more turbulence is ahead, he believes it won’t be insurmountable either. “I’m optimistic, and I actually think we are faring pretty well compared to many other restaurants,” he says.
His devotion to his profession is equally evident, despite “chef” being a later-in-life career choice.
“I didn’t learn to cook tugging on grandma’s apron,” he says. “I was the kid out fishing and then bringing my catch in to grandma to cook.”
In middle and high school in Troy, he excelled in debate and ended up at Samford University in Birmingham on a debate scholarship, where he remained passionate about the activity. While at Samford, he needed a job, and noticed a restaurant hiring busboys. He was soon working at Bottega, one of the eateries owned by renowned and pioneering chef Frank Stitt, and his affections quickly shifted.
“I just fell in love with food and wine and the whole culture of it all,” he says. “What I wanted for my future completely changed.” He kept working and learning in Birmingham restaurants in multiple positions (bartender, server), and then made the switch official, enrolling in culinary school at Johnson & Wales University.
Following graduation, Smith was back in Birmingham as chef de cuisine at Dyron’s Lowcountry, where turning some regulars into avid fans led to his state executive chef title.
“Robert Bentley and his wife came in a lot right before the gubernatorial election that he won, and we struck up a friendship,” he says. “Mrs. Bentley was asking my advice on handling food for state functions and such.” In the past, Alabama’s executive branch simply catered events and other occasions, but First Lady Bentley decided to create a state chef position. She encouraged Smith to apply, and he got the job, keeping it a little over eight years.
Smith says he has no complaints about the time spent as state chef, which included serving Gov. Kay Ivey, too. He knows it was a contributing factor in him being chosen to compete on Bravo’s “Top Chef” television show for two seasons, where his updated-classics cooking style and likable personality made him popular with viewers. But near the end of his tenure, he felt something missing.
“It was rewarding, and I was making great food, but I felt like not that many people were getting to experience it,” he says. “I wanted to share my food with a wider audience.”
That meant a restaurant of his own, and when he wondered where, Mobile seemed a natural fit, thanks to his four years as chair of the Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission. “I had this great base of seafood knowledge, so I knew that would be a focus,” he says. “And I got to know and really like Mobile; it’s a cool town with great people and a good vibe.” He also felt Mobile needed The Hummingbird Way. “I believe it can be one of the great food cities of the South, but it needs more restaurants,” he says.
It needed Smith’s biscuits, too, evidenced by their secure and constant spot on a menu that changes often in response to seasons and product availability. Airy and soft, they’re embellished with condiments both familiar and unexpected: whipped butter, dark cane syrup and smoked sea salt. But the biscuits are the stars; Smith is zealous in his quest to bake the “best” possible.
This pledge to quality is already a hallmark of the young restaurant. “I’m committed to finding the best ingredients, and that means local and fresh,” Smith says. “When that’s your foundation, you can keep things simple.”
Yet Smith’s creative applications and expert techniques that highlight every flavor ensure simple is never synonymous with boring. “I want my dishes interesting too, innovative but not overdone,” he says. Bacon-poached swordfish resting on a silky and vanilla-scented puree of pattypan squash and ringed in mushrooms and tender pink eye peas exemplifies this philosophy.
Smith’s personal favorite dish (not on the menu), a holdover from childhood, sheds some light on his allegiance to using restraint. “I still love a big bowl of black-eyed peas with their potliker, some cornbread on the side and a few vinegary pickled peppers for heat,” he says.
He also expresses a love of oysters, so it’s no surprise the beloved bivalve occupies a place of prominence at the restaurant, with three or four selections from various waters on offer and always at least one from Alabama. “There’s something special about oysters, and especially the ones from right here,” he says.
His description of the alchemy inherent in his occupation qualifies it as “something special,” too. “When you put thought into something, effort into making it and serve it to others, and then see them enjoy that work, it becomes something more than sustenance; it’s more like art,” he says. “And seeing someone’s eyes light up in response? That’s why I’m not knocked down by the tough stuff. It’s why I pour myself into every dish.”
The Hummingbird Way Oyster Bar
351 George St., Mobile, Alabama 36604
Open Tuesday-Saturday 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
You can find The Hummingbird Way on Facebook.