Roscoe Hall says that Alabama is the best place to eat. And we should trust him—he’s been everywhere. From dish washer to celebrity chef, Roscoe earned his culinary chops early: his grandfather, John Bishop, founded Dreamland Barbecue in Tuscaloosa, and one of his first jobs as a teenager was at Golden Temple, a vegan kitchen, in Birmingham. ”All I did was make hummus,” he remembers, and he remains fond of it. “I [still] peel garlic at home to soothe me,” he admits.
But Roscoe didn’t stop at hummus. He cooked his way through college, slinging burgers on the San Diego boardwalk. He earned culinary chops in the dish pit and rose the ranks of fine dining institutions quickly, eventually finding his way back to California under Alice Waters at Chez Panisse. From there, he continued to advance in kitchens across cities like St. Louis, Portland, and finally New York, at David Chang’s Momofuku Ssäm Bar. He was integral in forging the creative culinary scene in Birmingham that we know today, leading kitchens in beloved spaces like Urban Standard, Woodlawn Cycle Cafe, Rodney Scott’s Barbecue, and most recently Post Office Pies. In 2020, he performed on Season 18 of Top Chef, impressing judges with classic dishes that nod toward home: Alabama.
On Top Chef, Roscoe schooled the judges with dishes that offered a nod toward southern African American cultures and challenged the limits of traditional technique. Take his Red Rice with Farro, which he cooked Gullah-style, thickened with tomato paste and spices. It was a risky play on red rice with a different, tougher grain, spiced with bay leaf and brown butter and topped with shrimp and prosciutto. “No one believed I could get the farro done in the tomato sauce,” Roscoe tells me, and it remains the dish he is most proud of. “It was skill—still southern— and a nod to what I was cooking at the time at Rodney’s.”
But Roscoe’s favorite food is fresh crab—tried and true and delicious any which way. “It’s everything,” he tells me. “It’s sweet, it’s delicate.” His personal favorite dish that he prepared on Top Chef was Crab Rice that incorporated a clarified butter “spice bomb,” hoppin’ john and shimmery flakes of gold leaf. (For a similar recipe, see Roscoe’s Spice Bomb and Deviled Crab.) But there’s nothing better, he insists, than a perfect crab cake—for that, Roscoe says, Frank Stitt has a good one.
Top Chef was a significant experience for Hall. It marked a turning point in his career and an opportunity to share his skills and expertise with a national audience, invoking Alabama’s rich food and rich history existing in tandem.
“We have all the original recipes that everyone's using in ‘educated places,’” he uses air quotes, citing the culinary school to metropolitan fine dining pipeline. “[We use the same…] braises, reductions, cooking with liquor, cognac, butter… it’s just not always called that,” he says.
Not many people know that Alabama also boasts the only region in the country with as many as seven varietals of hog that produce different flavor breakdowns, Roscoe tells me. “No one talks about that—we don't have truffles, but who cares?” At the same time, Roscoe invokes Alabama’s social history: its role in Civil Rights and continued efforts toward social justice.
“These people went through so much in this state,” he says, citing Rosa Parks and other important figures. “It’s almost a 50/50 state; there's white people and Black people and they've actually learned to live with each other.” There is often talk of food as the great equalizer, the long table, a morally relative place to learn and exchange cultures. Roscoe pushes that concept a bit farther, suggesting that food should actually be familiar, hyperlocal, and community-minded.
Roscoe remembers moving back to Birmingham from New York City, where he incorporated everything he had learned from Momofuku at Urban Standard, a small but mighty coffee shop cafe in downtown Birmingham. Hall was serving up ramen noodles with buttered crab cakes, grilled watermelon salad and juicing up sweet corn, all-the-while pushing the limits of local southern cuisine out of a small coffee shop kitchen. While it’s now closed, Roscoe remembers how the creative spirit of Birmingham—and top notch local produce—made it thrive and paved the way for more innovation that we see in the city today.
Still, Roscoe has always been pushing the limits outside of restaurants. With fellow local chefs like Will Drake of Hero Doughnuts, Roscoe hosted “Knife Party Pop-ups,” setting up shop in secret locations around town and serving the best fresh, local produce that didn’t always find its way onto institutional menus: shishitos, okra, and green romanescos. Dishes were experimental and exciting, from collard greens with sweet potato chow-chow to kimchi pimento cheese and muscadine chicken liver truffle.
“Food should be a place where all races come to a restaurant and connect with at least an app or sound or a dessert or a dish,” he says. “It should all be a nod and a cooking method that they all know of that's familiar. Not salmon, rosemary, and new potatoes. It should be something that references a nod to where you are from, your region.” The idea that food experiences can be at once elevated and accessible, comforting and creative. It prioritizes the community and its needs.
Roscoe is also a practicing fine artist and acrylic painter; for him, food and self expression have always gone hand in hand. “I worked as a cook, but [I] used art to calm down,” Roscoe says. His memories and experiences in the food world, in tandem with those in arts and culture, inform his paintings, which explore themes like faith, family, and race. His most recent explorations use food to create color pigments. “It tells a story of food, recipes [and] life of contemporary African Americans.”
A recent exhibition entitled Two Houses centered on recurring motifs of duality: both the coupled passion of making food and making art to dual notions of home, his birthplace of Chicago and hometown of Tuscaloosa. The same artistic eye comes through in how Roscoe builds recipes and dishes: take his West Indies Fish, which is almost painterly in how each filet is dredged. When we talk about what Black food means to Roscoe today, he uses the context of Black figurative art. “There's been years of white faces in museums,” Roscoe says. “I feel that way about Black food sometimes,” he tells me. With new interest and excitement around Black foodways, Roscoe cautions against quick or easy definitions. “Black food is talked about so much and it’s important,” Roscoe warns, “but it’s come to a point where it’s like hip hop. It’s modified; we’ve got different variations of it.” It’s an opportunity, more than anything, to find meaning in nuance.
Still, Roscoe insists that expressions of creativity through food are, above all things, technical. “You’ve got to show technique, always. There’s no way around it.” he says. “You can’t do anything if you don’t learn from someone else,” he says, emphasizing the importance of humility and adaptation.
Looking to the future, Roscoe is interested in the role that African Americans have had in the farm-to-table movement, particularly in rural, Alabamian spaces. When he tells me about landmark memories as a chef, he tells me about sweet mornings of solitude setting up the restaurant kitchen and folding towels with the coffee machine whirring—the feeling when things “click.” It is no surprise that he counts Chez Panisse, the original and quintessential farm-to-table restaurant. While not his favorite dining experience, it was a great introduction to what a dining experience could be. “The lighting [makes] everything look original,” he says, remembering also the rich colors and textures of Alabama produce that have crossed his cutting board over the years.
Roscoe talks about food this way often, marking its aesthetic and visual properties and the feeling they elicit over taste alone. Leaning into the slowness of cooking at home and exploring new corners of the state, Roscoe is finding inspiration out in the community, and perhaps he is challenging us to do the same. There are so many ingredients out there and so many techniques to explore, often just a Youtube search or a trip to the farmer’s market away. As for a guilty pleasure of his? OG garlic fries with parmesan and parsley—no truffle needed.