One might expect to hear The Beatles song “Long and Winding Road” over the sound system at Root to Tail, Chef Ben Vaughn’s new restaurant in English Village. It would certainly be appropriate, given the circuitous way in which he arrived in Birmingham and opened this Mountain Brook eatery. Though only 40 years old, Ben has already racked up appearances on The Food Network, The Travel Channel and A&E Network’s World Food Championships. As host of Health Inspector, Ben has seen it all, and as a guest judge, he has probably tasted it all. He also lists “author” on his roster of accomplishments, having written Southern Routes: Secret Recipes from the Best Down-Home Joints in the South where he shares his favorite road trip, one delicious pit stop at a time.
In between media projects, Ben has served as a culinary director, consultant, chef and restaurant owner. This Florida native has had ventures in Memphis, Atlanta and Las Vegas, but Root to Tail is his first food concept in Alabama. Open since late August, the restaurant has been a huge hit, at both lunch and dinner, where it is not uncommon to be seated next to many familiar faces. Ben says they regularly see 40 percent return rates on diners, which he credits to his approach to the type of food he serves. “My concept is to work directly with farmers, removing purveyors and making it affordable to come here a couple of times a week,” he says. “You can have an incredible meal in a relaxed atmosphere.” Each dish only has a few ingredients but comes with a level of quality that resonates with diners. “I like to say that I serve ‘people food’—it is not homespun or rustic,” Ben continues. “It is refined and looks clean. It is respectful of our agriculture and our community.”
Ben leased the Root to Tail space just five months after moving to Birmingham, and credits nonprofit REV Birmingham with expediting his entry into the restaurant scene. The REV initiatives and thoughtful partnerships are economic drivers in not just Birmingham but also in neighborhoods all over the city. These are the folks who helped bring Zyp BikeShare to town, and they have positively disrupted the farm-to-restaurant delivery model with their Urban Food Project (UFP). Ben is thrilled with the access he has to seasonal produce through UFP: “From an app on my phone, I can see what is available from local farmers and write my menu from those ingredients.”
He and his wife moved here as he was writing his second book (Three Square Ten) for a job opportunity she had, and they had decided he would take care of their four kids and write the book and while she worked during the day. “During the process of writing, I started to look around and saw that Birmingham has a great core of restaurants but that it is underserved in a specific style of cuisine,” Ben says. “Highlands Bar & Grill, Bottega Café and Hot & Hot Fish Club are all phenomenal, but how many people can eat there every day or even three times a week?” He’s been cooking for 23 years, and this restaurant concept had been in his head for three of those. “When I found this location, I knew it was the right spot because it is an underserved area,” Ben says. “We’re about two miles from almost everything around here.”
Their location has seen a lot of restaurants over the years—Wanda June’s, Ciao, Bambinelli’s, La Catrina—but Ben wanted its interior to match his concept. “I love the space because of the way it flows and that it is small and controllable,” he explains. “But the last tenant used colors that were really bright and had painted the ceiling black. We toned things down by lightening up the paint colors and kept things a lot more simple. We’ve got about 50 seats inside and another 20 outside. Our (evening) hostess is also our artist, Katie Jones. She painted every painting in here.”
Cooler months promise a change in the types of salads and entrees Root to Tail will showcase. Gone are the local tomatoes and strawberry watermelon salads as they make way for darker greens and squash. “There is a core to our menu that will always be familiar, but the rest we can vary with the season,” Ben notes. “For the fall, we will add more pork dishes like porchetta, things with butternut squash, and maybe something with a sofrito, what I call a ‘cool guy salsa.’ Braised short ribs and gnocchi will more than likely be menu staples, as well as anything fresh from the Gulf.”
It sounds like we’re going to be glad Ben Vaughn took that long and winding road to English Village.
Get to Know Chef Ben Vaughn
For having lived here for just a short time, you seem very dialed in to the Birmingham food scene. How did that come about?
My wife says it is because I am like the guy next door. I talk to a lot of people. And I know a lot of chefs in the South–I am good friends with Linton Hopkins and Sean Brock and Hugh Acheson. So when I moved here, it was like, “Who do I need to talk to?” Farmers and REV Birmingham were at the top of the list. I also like the guys who own Roots & Revelry, Post Office Pies and Saw’s. Maybe the biggest thing though was getting plugged in with Dr. Shirley Kahn, who is my landlord and one of my biggest supporters. She eats here almost every day!
Will you continue to write books and produce digital content while running the restaurant?
Yes! I just finished up a deal for my third book, and we will definitely still be doing (digital series) The Breakfast Show. At Root to Tail, my sous chef, Gary Jones, and chef de partie, Dustin Allin, continue to be my two right hands in the kitchen.
Who were you most excited to sit down and eat with for The Breakfast Show?
There are two. Andrew Zimmern was really fun, and we became buddies after it. The other one was Jonathan Gold, the restaurant critic at the Los Angeles Times. I was totally geeked out on getting him because our show was one of the first ones he’d ever done. He’d never appeared anywhere. Everybody knew who he was but maybe not even what he looked like. It was almost nerve-wracking! Robin Leach is a good friend of mine, and he was on the show once too. He is my partner in the Las Vegas concept.