Tourism Tuesdays October 16, 2018

Registration open for the 2018 Alabama-Mississippi-Tennessee Rural Tourism Conference

An inside look at one of Birmingham’s most popular restaurants

New degree at Auburn combines wildlife, business and hospitality

Travel contributes to the growth of a community

‘Mockingbird’ star Mary Badham comes home to Alabama

Old Cahawba an ‘authentic place with unique stories’

2018 SELTI writing contest: Montgomery-The Capital of Dreams

“Partner Pointer” for the tourism industry website


Registration open for the 2018 Alabama-Mississippi-Tennessee Rural Tourism Conference
Registration is open for the 2018 Alabama-Mississippi-Tennessee Rural Tourism Conference, which will be hosted at the historic Pitman Theatre in downtown Gadsden on Oct. 22-24. The Pitman Theatre will be the site of all educational sessions and the host hotel is the Holiday Inn Express and Suites. Speakers will share their experience and expertise on a range of topics including social media training, agritourism and wineries, marketing to millenials, and tourism and the digital movement.

Conference events will also be held at Noccalula Falls Park, Back Forty Beer Company and the Gadsden Museum of Art. Registration is $150 per person. To register for the Alabama-Mississippi-Tennessee Rural Tourism Conference, visit

An inside look at one of Birmingham’s most popular restaurants
From the article by Eric Velasco on

Frank Stitt rhapsodizes about the fresh Italian porcini mushrooms on tonight’s menu in Bottega’s dining room.

“The porcini is meaty, luscious, earthy,” the restaurant’s owner and executive chef enthuses during a pre-service meeting. “It is umami.”

Stitt holds one up for the waiters, who are dressed alike in black vests and long white aprons. “Porcini means ‘little pig.’ You can see why. They’re plump and chubby.”

Availability is brief, he adds. “If your guests haven’t had fresh porcini, you should urge them to try them.”

Bottega, the middle child in Stitt’s restaurant family, celebrates its 30th anniversary this month. But in that time, Stitt has not lost a grain of zeal for sharing its bounty.

Whether praising the “personality” of salad greens from Terra Preta Farm, or raving about how tiny Fairy Tale eggplants from Belle Meadow cook so “pillowy soft,” it’s obvious, Stitt gets giddy about great ingredients.

“I need to spread the gospel,” he says. “I love to turn people on to flavors that are sensual and delicious.”

Stitt opened the Italian-influenced Bottega six years after founding his flagship restaurant, Highlands Bar and Grill. Both have profoundly affected Birmingham. Many local restaurant owners today trained at one or both.

While Highlands gets the national press and accolades, including this year’s prestigious Outstanding Restaurant award from the James Beard Foundation, Bottega seems to operate in its shadow, despite being every bit its equal.

Those desserts that earned Dolester Miles this year’s Beard award for national Outstanding Pastry Chef? She and her crew make them at Bottega.

Over two and a half months this summer, Birmingham magazine gained unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to Bottega, observing how its artists interweave cooking and service.

This article explores a day in the life of the restaurant and how Stitt, along with his partner and wife, Pardis, sustain one of the greatest establishments in a nationally recognized restaurant city.

Culinary workshop
In Italy, a bottega is a workshop where artists recreate works by their mentor. Bottega is Stitt’s workshop for Italian cuisine.

Stitt first became interested in Italian food during visits to Italy in his early 20s, where he watched produce vendors set up and butchers hone their skills. After opening Highlands at age 28, Stitt traveled throughout Italy and fell hard for its regional cooking and wines.

The trip inspired a desire to explore Italian cuisine in Birmingham, but he didn’t want to distort Highlands’ country French-inspired Southern menu by adding pastas and carpaccio to it. The result was Bottega.

Stitt kept noticing Bottega Favorita, an ornate stone edifice built in 1926 on a high point along Highland Avenue. The architecture buff admired the Beaux-Arts design, with columns and arches, high ceilings and patio space.

“So, I fall in love with the building just as I fall in love with Italian food,” Stitt says, recounting the story of his restaurant’s beginnings.

On Oct. 27, 1988, Stitt opened Bottega’s formal dining room, with white-cloth tables under imported chandeliers, and a grand staircase leading to a mezzanine.

Expanding two years later into adjoining space, Stitt added a cafe with a menu built mainly around pizzas and dishes roasted in a wood-burning oven.

The successful pairing—a casual yet top-quality concept next to a more formal restaurant—provided a blueprint when Frank and Pardis opened their third restaurant, the bistro Chez Fonfon next to Highlands in 2000.

Bottega’s dining room and cafe have different kitchens. Otherwise, they mostly overlap. Patrons can order off either menu. Staff often works on both sides. Waiters undergo the same rigorous training. Raw ingredients come from the same farmers, meat suppliers, cheesemakers, and importers, but take different spins depending on the side.

“We have a bit more lobster in the dining room,” Stitt says. “It has splurges like veal chops and truffles that are too expensive for the cafe.”

Unlike the dining room, the cafe is open all day and doesn’t take reservations. “You may wait a few minutes,” Stitt says. “But it’s not a bad place to wait.”

Morning glory
Dolester Miles moves a flat of farm eggs to a work station in Bottega’s spacious main kitchen early in the morning.

She starts cracking, separating the yellow-orange yolks before combining them with white sugar in a large mixer. In go flour, buttermilk, white wine, and Spanish sherry for Frank’s Favorite Cake.

The lush dessert is technically named Zabaglione Meringue for its core components. That name doesn’t sell quite as well, though.

“You’d be surprised how well the same item sells just by changing the name,” Miles says, chuckling.

Miss Dol, as she’s known, and her four-person team arrive at 5:30 a.m. Over the next eight hours they bake and frost various cakes. They prepare lemon tarts, sorbets, and other desserts. They make pizza dough and the egg-and-cheese base for parmesan souffle.

One rolls dough balls simultaneously with each hand for hamburger buns at the cafe and Chez Fonfon. Another prepares Bottega’s focaccia, topping dough with olive oil and salt before baking.

An early start suits Miles. “We have first choice of everything,” she says. “It’s cooler and quiet. I wish I could get in even earlier.”

Miles has been with Stitt all along. She started as Highlands’ first garde manger, making salads and starters. Transferring to Bottega as pastry chef, Miles also has worked there since day one.

Making desserts evokes pleasant memories from Miles’ childhood in Bessemer: holiday baking with her mother and aunt, and playfully sparring with siblings over spatulas.

Miss Dol loves creating happiness. “Dessert is the last thing you eat and hopefully the first thing you remember,” she says.

Self-taught, she passes her skills to a new generation, most of whom weren’t born when Bottega opened. But even after three-plus decades and a Beard award, she has no plan to retire.

“Really,” she says, “I’m just getting started.”

Heating up
By 8 a.m., food preparation is well underway in the main kitchen. Bottega’s prep-master, Jeff Mincey, cuts vegetables and butchers meats for the cafe. He makes marinara and other sauces, soup, and braises. He prepares most of the cafe’s beloved vegetable plate, a summertime Wednesday special.

Nearby, Miles gently scores her signature Coconut Pecan Cake with a long knife, indicating 16 portions. A pastry chef in an adjoining room applies thick swooshes of meringue on lemon tarts.

More than a dozen cooks concentrate on their tasks. Aside from the dish washer rattling pans, the metallic smack as a cafe cook flattens chicken breasts on a stainless-steel table provides one of few other sounds.

But the smells!

Toasted marshmallow from torched meringue. Perfume from mint in simmering simple syrup. The olfactory blast when raw garlic hits hot olive oil. Aromas linger after each tray of bread and every cake come out of the oven.

“Can you smell the herbs?” a server asks as a trainee stirs a vat of olive oil infused with garlic, coriander, chives, bay leaf, and other aromatics.

John “Johnny” Rolen, Bottega’s chef de cuisine, arrives and quickly checks in with Mincey, floor managers, and cafe line cooks. He looks through the walk-in cooler for deliveries, assessing what remains from yesterday.

In the kitchen, Stitt samples lettuce freshly delivered by Terra Preta Farm, run by former Bottega waiter Michael Dean. The chef extols the benefits of Dean’s approach to soil management, one of Stitt’s passions.

“You can taste it,” he says, eyes gleaming. “It’s got more character—more life.”

Farmers, fishers, family
A printout in Bottega’s kitchen lists local farms that supply Stitt’s restaurants. It includes the farmers’ names, their crops, and delivery days.

What they and other vendors bring daily through Bottega’s back door winds up on that night’s dining-room menu.

“That fuels our creativity,” says Rolen, who text messages to stay in touch with farmers and coordinates orders with his counterparts at Highlands and Fonfon. Deliveries stream in throughout the morning. Belle Meadow’s Andrew Kesterson brings heirloom tomatoes. Perry County’s Bois d’Arc Farm has organic green onions, cherry tomatoes, and okra.

Evans Meats and Seafood drops off ribeye, tenderloin, and snapper. From the Gulf of Mexico, Greg Abrams trucks in whole cobia and tuna loin.

One supplier is Paradise Farm, the Stitts’ 70-acre spread in Shelby County where they also keep polo horses. Stitt’s son, Weston, helps grow herbs, lettuces, favas, asparagus, tomatoes, and other produce on a three-acre plot.

Its hens supplement the 1,100 eggs that Bottega uses weekly for desserts, pasta dough, souffle, and dishes like Tuscan Egg Salad.

Restaurant employees pitch in at Paradise. Planting, weeding, and harvesting strengthen bonds to the food they cook and serve, Pardis says.

Abrams, who has supplied Stitt’s restaurants for decades, contacts Rolen before fish even hit the dock. “He’ll call and say he’s got a grouper boat coming in,” Rolen says, “or ‘We don’t have as much grouper as expected, but we have all the triggerfish you need.'”

Stitt built and nurtured a supply network from scratch because most ingredients Bottega needs were not available here in the late 1980s.

He started by foraging for the best producers at the Alabama Farmers Market on Finley Avenue. When Dean desired to farm, Stitt helped him start Terra Preta. The chef connects with legacy growers like Trent Boyd of Harvest Farms, a fourth-generation farmer, and new-generation farmers like David Snow of Snow’s Bend.

“They’re vegetable whisperers,” Stitt says.

Every January, Stitt meets farmers to specify vegetables his restaurants need for the coming year. Accompaniments on the plate are as important to Stitt as the meat.

Sprinkling “fairy dust”
Pardis Stitt may be the biggest reason Bottega and its siblings maintain excellence year after year, decade upon decade.

“She is the charming one who sprinkles the fairy dust and makes everyone feel they are the center of attention,” her husband says.

Pardis also cracks the whip, making sure employees strictly follow Bottega’s standards and training at every shift and with every table.

Chef Stitt says he’s no exception. “She’s really tough on me about dishes. She’s always saying, ‘What is the wow factor, Frank?’ Usually she has a point.”

But Pardis is mama to a staff that the Stitts consider family. While talking about former employees now running restaurants she calls them “our children.”

The oldest of three daughters to a dentist and an educator—both born in Iran—Pardis Sooudi grew up in Birmingham with feet planted in two worlds.

She spoke Farsi before learning English. Her mother insisted her daughters recite Persian poems that she taught students back home.

But Pardis also danced jazz, tap, and ballet. She joined the Rebelette squad at Vestavia Hills High School. She worked at stylish clothing stores.

Young Pardis’ future started to coalesce when she began working as a hostess at the former Bombay Cafe.

Off duty, she frequented Bottega’s dining room. Its manager offered her a job, and in a few months she was promoted to manager. She immediately began developing systems and standards for front-of-house staff.

Pardis, who married Frank in 1995, doesn’t seek the limelight. “I’m really shy,” she confides. “People don’t know that because I’m out front. But I really have to work at it.”

But the limelight finds Pardis. Patrons seek her attention whenever she glides through the dining room in a flowing dress and heels. She stops to converse. She hugs people at the door.

In between, the perfectionist adjusts place settings, removes a just-emptied wine glass, or ducks around the corner to tutor a trainee.

Shyness aside, Pardis’ hospitality is instinctive. She attributes that to her heritage and upbringing. Her mom, for example, always cooks for a crowd in case one shows up.

“There always was a party in our house, or we were going to somebody’s party in the Iranian community here,” she says. “We would have 20-30 people gathering for food and drink, conversation, and laughter.”

Much of Pardis’ day is quite unglamorous.

Dressed casually in the cramped upstairs office at Bottega, she handles thousands of tasks to keep multiple restaurants running—overseeing website improvements, resolving issues with Bottega’s sound system, monitoring how trainees progress, arranging replacement of Fonfon’s awnings.

She sweats special-event details, including menus. “Frank, they requested mac-and-cheese as a vegetable,” she says as her husband stands nearby. “Are you OK with that?”

He looks stunned but says nothing, provoking a laugh from Pardis. Someone notes treating the cheesy pasta bake as a vegetable is quintessentially Southern. Raised in Cullman County near his mother’s family farm, Stitt firmly shakes his head. “That is not what I grew up with.”

Pardis moves on to valet issues and works with the office manager to resolve a payroll snafu. Seeds for the next planting at Paradise Farm need to be ordered. She telephones a new linen supplier. “Let’s stay in touch,” she says, “so we can get the first orders right.”

Cafe lunch
Friday’s cafe lunch rush hits early. People start arriving before the 11 a.m. opening. Tables and the bar soon fill. Some eat quickly. Others linger over wine. Cooks are in overdrive in the small open kitchen that’s visible to most tables. They’ll feed some 400 people before closing time.

Paco LaTorre shuffles pizzas in the oven, which hits 750 degrees near the flaming hickory logs in the rear. He slides a pasta bake closer to the front, a “cooler” 500 degrees.

“Paco works oven day and night,” chef de cuisine Rolen says. “He’s tough.” The kitchen’s four cooks silently coordinate. When Antonio Artega flips a chicken on the grill, Carola Basilo makes salad for Chicken Paillard. She watches the oven, timing her end of a half-pizza and small-salad combo that is served exclusively at the bar.

“Fire Table 7,” a waiter calls, indicating cooks should start that table’s entrees because customers are nearly done with starters.

A waiter at the server station slices Peach Upside-down Cake for her table’s dessert. In the dining room, another says hello to regulars on the way to his tables across the room.

David Garcia removes a hot skillet from the oven. In go marinara and feta cheese. He tosses it, plates it, and tops it with shredded basil. He adds focaccia and tries pita—a new touch for the classic Baked Feta dish.

“I like that,” says manager Kim Thomas, smiling in affirmation as she checks finished dishes and coordinates with waiters.

Frank or Pardis appear periodically, watching the kitchen and floor. They also check for diners looking uncomfortable, a sign they need service.

Earning the vest
Service standards created by Pardis and managers over the years codify how waiters act, from posture to presentation.

Customers are “guests.” If a guest says thank you, thank them back. If anything anywhere is even slightly out of place, fix it.

Before and after service, waiters must wipe all wood in their sections and ensure each chair and banquette is spotless. They even scrape seams with cotton swabs.

No perfume or cologne. No exposed jewelry or anything jangling in pockets that could distract guests. Be in full uniform before evening staff meeting. To earn the black waiter’s vest, prospects train for up to six weeks and must pass an extensive written test.

They start as Waiter Assistants (their training manual is the “WA Survival Guide”), shadowing vested servers.

They learn to set a formal table, as well as the official methods to carry, place, and pick up plates. They’re shown how to make espresso; prepare coffee and tea service; carry and open wine bottles; and wrap water pitchers so condensation doesn’t drip.

They put in kitchen shifts, learning how everything is prepared and watching servers interact with cooks. Oral quiz topics for budding waiters include how to make remoulade, what’s in the spice rub for house-cured pancetta, and who supplies the pork.

“It reinforces the fact we’re serious,” Pardis says. “They have a much greater appreciation of everyone’s role and why they are important.”

The prospect returns to tables for several shifts, helping an experienced waiter and learning the point-of-sale system. Bar shifts teach wine pairings and cocktail-making. Back on the floor, the trainee gradually picks up more responsibilities. Managers must sign off on each step before the employee is awarded a waiter’s vest.

This depth of training presages long-term commitment. “We want them to fully share our excitement about learning and creating a great restaurant,” Chef Stitt says. “That takes hold after you’re here three, four, five years.”

Several staffers have a decade or more here. Leaders like Thomas leave briefly and return. Rolen, hired in 1998 and put in charge of the kitchens in 2001, left orbit briefly for Whole Foods and a saner schedule for his children, now ages 16 and 11.

Bottega’s gravitational pull eventually re-snagged Rolen, who returned in 2016. “I missed the restaurant family,” he says. “Working for Frank is a growing experience. Every day I learn something new.”

Born to run
A detail-oriented leader and gifted chef, Rolen practically was born to run Bottega’s kitchens.

His great-grandfather, an Italian immigrant, had a farm in Birmingham’s West End from which he sold his ricotta and mozzarella cheeses dried in handwoven reed baskets. A Sicilian grandmother schooled Rolen in her homeland’s rustic cooking.

Rolen revels in pasta-making. “I like finding the perfect ratio between silky, beautiful egg yolk and flour, and pushing it to the limit,” he says. “Pasta reflects the maker. It shows who you are.”

Rolen’s first Bottega encounter was on a high-school prom date. “I had a nice steak,” he recalls. “My girlfriend had Capellini Bottega, my first time seeing the pasta pomodoro we still do today.”

He began working at the cafe, but left a year later to study art history—and the pasta arts—in Italy. Upon return, Rolen rejoined Bottega’s kitchen. When the chef de cuisine position opened, he pounced on the top kitchen spot.

Seventeen years later, Rolen and Stitt seem telepathically connected. Rolen has Stitt’s total trust. “Sure, I tweak some things,” Stitt says. “I encourage using certain ingredients. But he is the leader.”

Rolen maintains menus dating back some 20 years. “When someone asks for something they ate years before, you’ve got to be able to recreate it,” he explains.

On Mondays, one of two days Bottega is closed, Rolen supervises a deep clean of its bars and kitchens. Periodically, he throws a log into the cafe oven, which never is allowed to go cold.

Backward counting
Daily menu and prep planning for the dining room is a form of reverse engineering.

It starts with a head count. Rolen scans reservations and reads details about a private party. He checks numbers from both previous weeks and this time last year to divine trends.

Rolen’s analysis is demand and supply. But he can only make educated guesses. Sometimes everyone seemingly orders the same thing. With snapper an option for tonight’s 25-person party, will 15 portions be enough?

The reservation list, broken into quarter-hour increments, also indicates tonight’s ebb and flow. Rolen checks events around town: Concerts by bands like the Eagles likely means a pre-show rush. A symphony performance indicates a late walk-in crowd.

Tonight’s rush will arrive between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m., when the mezzanine private party starts and nearly four-dozen others have reservations, including a table for nine. That doesn’t include walk-in guests.

The kitchen will be prepared.

Afternoon transition
“Want me to get on that pompano?” Rolen asks grill cook John Dunlap, who busily butchers beef about three hours before dining-room service.

The kitchen night shift starts arriving around noon. Kyle Goldstein, who is in charge of the sets (kitchen term for accompaniments to the entree), peels asparagus, slices bulb onions, and pre-cooks. Dunlap cuts hanger steaks. Rolen filets fish.

Night-side servers trickle in through the back door and start their routines. A front-of-house trainee observes in the kitchen. He rattles off ingredients when Mincey asks what’s in the house marinara: “Mirepoix, tomato, garlic, shallots, bay leaf, thyme, Parmesan rind.”

Managers hold pre-service meetings with waiters and bartenders at 4:30 p.m. “Y’all ready?” Rolen asks, approaching the gathering at the dining room bar. “We’re flipping on the mains from last night. Pompano gets risi e bisi (rice and peas). Seared scallops get the lentil set.”

Blueberry semifreddo replaces apple tart, Rolen tells waiters. “Halibut is now off the menu, but we have four left. Risi e bisi is the preferred set, but either fish set will work. We have 20 Parmesan souffle and 14 lamb porterhouse.”

Rolen dashes to join the cafe meeting. Manager Gray Maddox asks a server how tonight’s special, braised duck, is made. “Beautiful,” the manager says after the recitation. He adds a wine recommendation. “It goes great with Barbera.”

As the dining room opens, Rolen checks kitchen work stations. He pulls out pea tendrils, chive blossoms, and other garnishes to add to dishes.

Minutes later, a machine spits out the first guest ticket.

Wrong narrative
The night’s dining room menu is typically mouthwatering. Entrees include fat diver scallops, Pennsylvania lamb, ruby-red Canadian veal, and pork from fabled Alabama purveyor Henry Fudge.

The risotto appetizer features just-delivered crawfish. Tuscan Egg Salad, its greens wilted by soft-scrambled farm egg, includes house-cured pancetta and fried oysters.

Tuna belly, pounded thin, will be served carpaccio-style with dressing that includes high-end citrus vinegar from Italy. The appetizer is finished with crushed Marcona almonds, bright-green baby mint from Paradise Farm, and estate-grown Sicilian olive oil.

“We get the best of everything at Bottega,” Rolen says.

So why does Highlands get all the national love, while Bottega remains Birmingham’s secret?

The dichotomy puzzles Pardis. It’s bothersome, but to a degree understandable to Chef Stitt.

“I think the food and experience at Bottega is equal to Highlands,” he says. “The commitment to quality and excellence, I assure, is equal.”

But the national narrative about Stitt always goes like this: Native son leaves the Deep South, discovers the world, and returns to Alabama to reinvent and elevate Southern cuisine.

Alabama food with French influences is a novelty in New York City, home to the Beard Foundation and most national media writing about Stitt. “Highlands has every box checked,” he says.

Italian restaurants in the Big Apple are ubiquitous. “An Italian restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama,” Stitt says, “is not the story they needed or wanted.” Rolen has no heartburn. Bottega gets Frank’s and Pardis’ attention daily, he says. “That’s ultimately what matters to me.”

He mentions a Kansas City cook who recently applied after hearing how Bottega’s kitchens run. “It means we’re treating people well,” he says. “We’re tough. We’re demanding. We have high standards. But people seeking excellence in themselves, that’s what they want.”

Conductor, educator
Rolen has a saying: Even when Frank Stitt is not in the kitchen, his spirit is there. His standards and aesthetic are ever-present.

Stitt likens his role to a conductor. His staff is the orchestra. “I say ‘This is what we’ll play and how we’ll play it.’ They have to pull it off.”

He has a legendary love for food, wine, and history, and for sharing how they all intersect. He talks about the joyous look on a young waiter’s face upon trying Bottega’s roasted red pepper, “a direct descendent of an old Sicilian dish,” for the first time that morning.

“Then he tried it with our new rose and said, ‘This is one of the greatest things I ever tasted,'” Stitt says. “It’s too easy to forget how life altering something like that can be.”

Ever the educator, Stitt detours while crossing the kitchen and tells a prep cook to slice lemons thinner so guests don’t get a mouthful of rind. Later he warns a line cook about preparing the baby carrots and tiny eggplant too early. “Closer to serving time would be better so they don’t dry out,” he says.

Old-school chefs have a reputation for pitching fits and screaming. Not Stitt. “It’s got to be something outrageously stupid for him to yell,” says prep-master Mincey, a 20-year veteran. “I’ve seen him do it maybe once or twice.”

Extremely well-versed in wine, Stitt regularly visits vintners and takes pride in finding unsung wines. The chef has introduced Birmingham to dry Austrian Rieslings, grower-produced sparkling wines, and cru Beaujolais. They now sell all over town.

That could be one of his restaurants’ most lasting impacts, Stitt says. “I have an opportunity to influence people’s tastes and understanding of wines that need to be considered.”

All in a day’s work
The main kitchen hits a peak around 8 p.m. At least 50 people’s orders are pending, progressing from appetizer to entree to dessert. Nearly two-dozen more make up the private party.

Fish fills a griddle. A cook sears scallops and seasons meat. Another plates their sets. And a third boils pastas on an induction burner, while shaking pans with sauces and risotto on the adjacent stove.

Every available server runs house salads upstairs to the party. Appetizers and salads flow to the dining room from two garde mangers. The table for nine orders doubles of everything the duo makes.

Tickets constantly emit from two printers, one for line cooks, the other for garde manger and desserts.

Rolen reads a couple’s ticket and calls out, “Prefire pork. Prefire pork.” Next ticket is a hanger steak, no appetizer. “Walk-in. Fire hanger mid-rare.”

He occasionally uses the phrase “all day” when summarizing all orders so nothing is overlooked. “Five hangers all day, one well-done. Three pompano all day.”

Rolen watches everything. Occasionally he tells cooks to adjust portions or presentation. “Break up those tomatoes,” he tells one, mid-dinner rush. “See that big chunk?”

He autopsies the few plates abandoned half-eaten. “She said she didn’t look cute eating it,” a waiter explains about an unfinished salad. “Too much frisee,” Rolen concludes.

“Fire the party,” another waiter calls. Grill and stoves again fill with food.

As expediter, Rolen wipes and garnishes every plate. “These go to one and two,” he says, indicating assigned seat numbers so waiters automatically deliver what each diner orders. “Seat three ordered two entrees,” he tells a manager pitching in. “Four is no chilies.”

Bottega’s kitchen leader hates when plates sit, even for seconds. “Runner, please,” he calls if no waiter is nearby. Any further delay, Rolen’s body stiffens and his voice is more emphatic. “I need hands.”

The last plates go out after 10 p.m. The main kitchen has fed some 120 people. It’s time to break down and clean up.

“Good job fellas,” Rolen says.

The cooks reply in unison. “Thank you, Chef.”

Tomorrow, they’ll do it all again.

For the complete article please see

New degree at Auburn combines wildlife, business and hospitality
From the article by David Rainer on

Pay attention, high schoolers and parents. Students who love the outdoors and plan to continue their education after graduation will have a new option for a college degree rooted in the outdoors at Auburn University in 2019.

The undergraduate degree will be in Wildlife Enterprise Management with training in wildlife sciences, business and hospitality. Auburn professors Steve Ditchkoff and Mark Smith collaborated on developing the major in an effort to fill a need in the outdoors community that doesn’t require a wildlife biologist degree.

Heather Crozier, Director of Development at the Auburn School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences unveiled the program to outdoor writers recently at the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association Conference in Florence, S.C.

Outdoor recreation generates about a $14 billion impact on the Alabama economy and about $887 billion nationwide. Outdoors-related businesses and companies support 135,000 jobs in Alabama.

“Our faculty did some surveys, and they found that in a 250-mile radius of Auburn that there are 1,000 businesses that are wildlife enterprise-related,” Crozier said. “This major will give us a unique skillset for that industry. The students will also get a minor in business so they will understand basic business principals.”

Crozier said the new degree program will utilize the facilities connected to Auburn. The Deer Lab is a 400-plus-acre facility near Auburn at Camp Hill where researchers study the genetics and physiology of white-tailed deer. The Solon Dixon Forestry Education Center near Andalusia gives students hands-on instruction in forestry, wildlife and natural resources management. The Kreher Preserve and Nature Center on the outskirts of Auburn provides an outdoors venue for a variety of nature programs.

Crozier said only one other college, Kansas State, offers a similar degree with about 100 students in that program annually.

“When our students graduate with a Wildlife Enterprise Management degree, we hope they will apply the principles of wildlife enterprise, understand and apply the ecological principles in conservation biology and eco-tourism and be a well-rounded student in hospitality and understand customer service in food and beverage production and lodging,” Crozier said. “They will have the skillset to be able to run a business as well as be able to effectively market and advertise the wildlife- and outdoor-based enterprise.”

This curriculum will have a wildlife core with about 60 percent of the courses in wildlife sciences and about 40 percent in business and hospitality.

“Most of our students who go to work for fish and wildlife departments are wildlife sciences majors and end up being wildlife biologists,” Crozier said. “The students in the new program will not be wildlife biologists.”

Crozier said the graduates in the new degree can pursue jobs at hunting lodges, shooting facilities, fishing resorts as well as guide services and outdoor sport/adventure promotions.

“Dr. Ditchkoff and Dr. Smith were talking with people in the industry, and they kept hearing, ‘We need students who understand business, who understand customer expectations and who know about wildlife,’” she said. “What they learned was several of the outfitters they talked to were going to colleges and universities and recruiting wildlife students and teaching them about hospitality and business. Or, they were recruiting hospitality and business students and teaching them about wildlife. The industry said it would really be nice if you could develop this specific product. We feel like there is a market for it. They started exploring and realized how many outdoor-enterprise businesses there were in that 250-mile radius of Auburn. They realized, hey, there really is a niche for this type of degree.

“With Kansas State being the only other place that offered a similar program, we just felt like we could fill that need.”

Pam Swanner of Alabama Black Belt Adventures agrees wholeheartedly.

“The Black Belt region has a rich history in the traditions of hunting and fishing,” Swanner said. “It’s a natural fit that Auburn would create a unique degree program to provide a skilled workforce trained in land management, business and hospitality. At Auburn’s back door are more than 50 outfitters that can provide opportunities for student internships.

“Alabama Black Belt Adventures is partnering with AU’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences to assist in organizing internship placement in the Black Belt region. We’re also introducing the faculty to the industry’s many product companies and other organizations that have an interest in supporting such a worthwhile program with scholarship funds to ensure a prosperous future for our industry.”

Crozier said if you venture outside that 250-mile radius, the possibilities become considerably greater. She said 40 students currently enrolled at Auburn are waiting to pursue the new degree, and she expects the program will eventually graduate between 100 and 150 annually.

“Just think about international,” she said. “It’s amazing how many opportunities are out there. We expect these students to not only go to work for hunting lodges, fishing lodges and shooting facilities, but also do safaris in Africa, outdoor adventures anywhere in the world or become representatives for outdoors companies. This is an extremely broad major that does not limit our students to a specific area.

“We’re expecting the demand for this major to blossom and really increase.”

Crozier said an internship is not a part of the curriculum, but it is highly suggested so that the students who go into this major will get some industry experience.

“Dr. Ditchkoff and Dr. Smith are putting together a list of industry contacts who are looking for interns,” she said. “It will be up to the student to go find their internship. If we have a company or business that wants to interview students, we will provide a place to do that and line the students up to interview.

Crozier said the faculty plans to reach out to the outdoors industry to identify what might be a current need or emerging need that could become an area of focus or to adjust the curriculum.

“Being a brand new program, we do have some needs. We need to be able to create partnerships with industry so that our students have places and opportunities to intern,” she said. “We’re looking for corporate sponsorships. Academic scholarships attract your best and brightest students. We need mentors, speakers for classes, places to take students for field tours, travel stipends for our students and faculty.”

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Travel contributes to the growth of a community
From the article by Judy Ryals on

Editor’s note: Judy Ryals is the President/CEO of the Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Thriving communities are a result of several positive factors, but what all these communities have in common is that each member feels acknowledged, connected and cared for, and inevitably sees an enriching future in their environment.

As a member of our local community, I witness incredible momentum every day toward our goal of building this region as a thriving place to open a business, find rewarding work, and raise a family. As a travel leader, I see this rapidly translating into economic growth and job creation as we welcome more and more visitors to our area.

Our job at the Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau is to showcase what our beautiful community has to offer to travelers. This allows us to attract visitors — both domestic and particularly international — not only to see the sights and sounds but to meet you, our incredible community members. Doing so boosts our local economy and creates jobs.

Research continually reveals that travelers are seeking experiences. It’s not enough to walk through Monte Sano State Park, visitors want to meet the staff that maintain its beauty. It’s not enough to just sample our thriving microbreweries, visitors want to ask questions of the local brewmasters.

Travelers arrive to our region everyday not just ready to see the sites, but with expectations to take in a full experience. And, they arrive ready to invest in our communities.

It is easy to simply describe travel and tourism activity in our area as out-of-town individuals who come here to spend their hard-earned dollars. We view their time here as an investment in us. You have made this the place to visit for them, and we are fortunate to be rewarded with their investment – whether it is a three-night hotel stay, four meals at our local restaurants or admission paid at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center or Huntsville Botanical Garden.

That’s where we come in. Our job is to go out and tell the community’s story. We market our region with pride, and prompt would-be travelers to consider a weekend – or a week – right here to engage with our surroundings and be rewarded with an incredible experience.

Our marketing campaigns take on a variety of forms, but we could not achieve nearly the scale or reach of our international capabilities without Brand USA. This organization is a one-stop-shop for destination marketing organizations (DMOs) like ours, to connect with hard-to-reach international communities of travelers. Through our partnership with the state of Alabama and Brand USA, we have been able to greatly enhance our promotional outreach to the international market.

Brand USA is a public-private partnership, with no federal taxpayer funds used whatsoever. It affords smaller and medium-sized DMOs like ours to stretch marketing investments, funded by a small fee assessed to international travelers approved to visit the U.S. under the selective and secure Visa Waiver Program.

You might be surprised to learn that Brand USA is responsible for over $17 billion in economic growth to our country since its establishment in 2010, and its efforts nationally support 51,000 jobs annually.

We must urge Congress to support Brand USA and reauthorize this critical program. It enables us to compete for travelers in the global markets where they live and builds upon our record of attracting visitors from all over the world—boosting our local economy and job base while showing what makes this corner of America so special.

Next time you observe an international traveler in one of Huntsville’s local shops, museums or attractions, welcome them! They are investing in us.

For the complete article please see

‘Mockingbird’ star Mary Badham comes home to Alabama
From the article by Bob Carlton on

Mary Badham has lost touch with her “To Kill a Mockingbird” co-star, Phillip Alford, but if he happens to read this, she has a message for him:

Let’s get together and talk.

“I would just love it if Phillip would show up somewhere,” Badham says from her home outside Richmond, Va. “Because there are things we need to talk about, things that were kind of left hanging when we parted.”

Badham, who grew up in Birmingham, returned home last week to talk about “To Kill a Mockingbird” and how both the book and the movie have shaped her life at a Jefferson County Historical Association gathering.

She and Alford, a Gadsden native, were just 10 and 14, respectively when they appeared as siblings Scout and Jem Finch in the 1962 movie adaptation of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

It was the first film for both, and much was made about how the two young Alabama actors were constantly squabbling with each other on the movie set.

Badham says that is not untrue, although perhaps a little overblown.

“We used to bicker about stuff all the time,” she recalls. “You can think of it this way: Here are these two boys (Alford and John Megna, who played Dill) and they are doing their guy things, and along comes this bratty little girl they have to play with.

“They took great delight in irritating me, and I them —evidently, from what Phillip said.”

Badham last saw Alford at a “To Kill a Mockingbird” celebration in his hometown of Gadsden in 2008, at which he announced he was worn out from, and officially done with, talking about the movie.

“I’m done being Jem after this weekend,” Alford said, according to the Gadsden Times.

“I haven’t talked to Phillip in literally years,” Badham says. “The number that I had (for him) is no longer in service, and I have no idea where he is or what he’s doing or anything, which is really sad because I felt closer to Phillip than I did my real brothers.

“I mean, he used to irritate the heck out of me, . . . but as we got older, I really took a great comfort in his presence. He understood me. He got me. It’s something you can’t really explain. There is a kinship there.”

Putting down stakes in Virginia
Badham’s performance in “To Kill a Mockingbird” earned her an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress, and at the time, she was the youngest actress ever nominated in that category.

But just four years later —after appearing in the William Castle horror film “Let’s Kill Uncle” and in the Sydney Pollack drama “This Property Is Condemned” with Robert Redford and Natalie Wood —she had already grown disillusioned with Hollywood and got out of the business.

Alford, who subsequently appeared in the Civil War drama “Shenandoah” with James Stewart and in an episode of the TV Western “The Virginian,” likewise “retired” from the movie business after 10 years.

“It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to pursue (a film career),” Badham says. “It was a mixture of things. Scripts were changing, and the studios didn’t have as much control as they had before.

“Especially during the ’70s and ’80s, there was just too much sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll,” she adds. “I mean, these people were just totally alien to me.

“And Phillip felt the same way. They were sending us scripts with these drugged-out, wacked-out people, and we didn’t understand that or know that. We didn’t know how to go there or do that, and we weren’t going to do that.”

While Badham’s older half-brother, John Badham, went on to a successful film career as the director of such movies as “Saturday Night Fever,” “WarGames” and “Stakeout,” Mary Badham instead got married and settled down in Virginia, where she has worked as an art restorer and her husband is a dean at a community college. They have two grown children and three grandchildren.

“I used to be out in the country, but now I’m surrounded by subdivisions,” she says. “So it’s not so much country anymore. I can’t ride the horses the way I used to.”

Badham — whose other brother, Tom Badham, lives in the Huntsville area —says she has never tired of traveling the country and the world to talk about the lessons to be learned from “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Over the years, she has come back to Alabama for such “Mockingbird”-related events as The Big Read, a reading initiative funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, and the annual community theater production of “TKAM” in Monroeville. In 2012, she visited the White House as a guest of former President Barack Obama for a 50th anniversary screening of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“My whole life has been sort of based on that book and the film and the friendships I made making the film and the people I was exposed to and the places that I’ve traveled to,” she says.

“Travel from my work with ‘Mockingbird’ has been amazing,” she adds. “It’s taught me so much about not only my country but other countries, because this book is taught all over the world.”

Three father figures in her life
Two of her most endearing friendships from “To Kill a Mockingbird” were with Brock Peters, who played the wrongly accused Tom Robinson, and Gregory Peck, who played the virtuous Atticus Finch. Peck, whom she fondly called “Atticus,” died in 2003, and Peters died two years later.

“I was lucky,” Badham says. “I had three strong father figures in my life —my father, Gregory Peck and Brock Peters.

“Those men helped raise me because I lost my mom three weeks after I graduated from high school. They were the guides in my life. . . .

“Brock was so wonderful, he and Atticus,” she adds. “I looked up to them. I think a lot of my faith and a lot of my politics and all of that is based on their mentoring.”

Badham, though, was not at all close with the famously private Harper Lee, and it was not until a few years before Lee died in 2016 that the two of them reconnected for the first time since the movie’s premiere in 1962.

“We didn’t hook up until much later,” Badham says. “She was already in the nursing home by then because she had macular degeneration. We didn’t get to be really close until then.

“Her minister said he was going over to visit with her and (asked) would I like to go. I said, ‘I would love to,’ and I went. Then, after that, whenever I would go down (to Monroeville), I would visit with her or call her and check on her.”

Badham says she was on the road when she heard that Lee had died.

“I don’t remember exactly how I found out that she had passed away, but I knew her time was near,” she says. “I felt it before I found out about it.

“She had been having visitors, and the last time I went down to visit her, they wouldn’t let anybody in. So that was kind of hard. It’s always hard when you lose somebody that you look up to so much.”

Taking a wait-and-see approach
Because “To Kill a Mockingbird” is “something that’s very near and dear to my heart,” Badham says she is unsure if she will go see Aaron Sorkin’s upcoming Broadway production, which will star Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch.

While Harper Lee had given the play her blessings before she died, the production became entangled in a legal battle after the attorney for Lee’s estate, Tonja B. Carter, objected to the portrayal of Atticus in an earlier draft of the play, as well as some of the plot points and dialogue. A lawsuit that threatened to shut down the production was settled earlier this year.

“I think I’m going to wait and let somebody else go see it,” Badham says. “I’ve got friends who are definitely going to see it, and once I get the clearance from them that I’m not going to get totally upset and waste a trip to New York, I think then maybe I’ll decide whether I’m going to go see it.”

For the complete article please see

Old Cahawba an ‘authentic place with unique stories’
From the article by Alvin Benn on

Linda Derry has a dream job, and she can’t wait to get to work every day.

While some commuters in big towns dread the thought of getting into their car to deal with occasionally rude motorists every morning, she can’t wait to see “them.”

“I come to work early because it gives me a chance to see the scenery and count the wildlife,” she said. “It’s a traffic jam that most people would love to deal with.”

Her days are, for the most part, filled with “residents” in the guise of deer, turkeys, flowers and birds looking for a good place to rest their weary wings.

Derry is the site director at an archaeological park in Dallas County, and she’s happy to be a “public servant” with a unique calling card.

“Archaeology is my tool box, and I reach into it every day for data and interpretations that can be applied to community issues,” she said a few days ago.

For those unfamiliar with Alabama’s first “capital,” it’s been a ghost town for the past couple of centuries, nestled gently between the confluence of the Alabama and Cahaba rivers.

It wasn’t that way in 1860 as America’s bloodiest domestic war slowly appeared on the horizon. Instead, local leaders proudly boasted of living in one of the wealthiest regions in America.

That may be hard to digest because there isn’t anything but memories at the site today. Tourists drop by to take a look at times, but, other than that, the world allows Cahawba to rest easy.

Derry is an overseer of sorts, checking on acre after acre of wildlife. At times she must have to pinch herself to be so happy, so fortunate.

“I’m really lucky to be in this wonderful place,” she says. “It’s better than being in a paved over parking lot.”

Selma is located a few miles away, and that’s where restaurants and stores provide daily sustenance. Other than that, she spends her days inside a welcome center packed with all kinds of historic material.

“Old Cahawba,” as it’s called, might best be described as a “landscape of ruins” but Derry and her assistants prefer to view it as a place where history still lives — in a way.

“I’ve learned that visitors are not interested in just archaeology or just history, nature or history,” she said. “They are looking to experience an authentic place with unique stories.”

Derry’s love of the great outdoors began at an early age, but when she inquired about the possibility of becoming a park ranger, she got a quick lesson in gender inequalities.

She was informed in a slightly discouraging letter at the time suggesting that she might want to look for another line of work because park rangers at the time were limited to “only male applicants.”

Persistence has been one of Derry’s strengths and she kept at it until her dream became a reality thanks to a professor who could see she wasn’t going to quit until her goal was realized.

It was 1971 and by the end of that summer she knew what her life course would be, one that would include admission to Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and introduction to the “New Archaeology” movement.

“Looking back, I can see how these and other mentors set me on a path toward my current career,” said Derry, who quickly became the area’s expert in her chosen field.

Dallas County’s Bicentennial efforts are slowly coming to fruition, and Derry was on hand a few days ago to take part in what promises to be an extended salute to a 200-year celebration.

One of the programs includes the burial of time capsules at prominent locations throughout Dallas County. Citizen involvement is being sought to help fill the capsules.

Derry said proclamations will go into the time capsules along with “awesome displays” and other additions that will focus on one of Alabama’s most important historic sites.

The commemoration included help from representatives of the Black Belt Genealogical Society to assist in researching ancestral requests including interpretation of DNA tests in Alabama and Dallas County.

A cake with a large, bright red “200” was cut to commemorate the special occasion and former state Rep. Noopie Cosby was on hand for the release of butterflies to mark the event.

Derry points out that the current celebration is the Bicentennial of Dallas County, which she said is “considerably older than the state.”

Dallas County was created by an act of the Territorial Legislature on Feb. 9, 1818. Alabama became a state on Dec. 14, 1819.  Dallas County was named for U.S. Treasury Secretary Alexander J. Dallas of Pennsylvania.

After the state capital was moved to Tuscaloosa in 1826 and, eventually, to Montgomery, Cahawba continued to grow into a thriving, wealthy river town, becoming a social and commercial center.

Cahawba served as a major distribution point for cotton shipped from the Black Belt region down the Alabama River to the port of Mobile.  Dallas County would, according to claims and studies, become the 4th wealthiest county per capita in America.

Butterflies became a beautiful addition to the ceremony, representing hope and change,” according to Cosby. “As we celebrate the last 200 years we should look at the butterflies as a symbol for the rebirth of the next 200 years of Dallas County. After all, we are the Butterfly City” of Alabama.

It’s a shame Mallieve Breeding wasn’t on hand to help celebrate the special event since she was known as “Madam Butterfly” for her efforts to mark the occasion.

Breeding died in March at the age of 96 after spending much of her life as an environmental leader in Dallas County and across Alabama.

In a proclamation prepared by Dallas County Probate Judge Kimbrough Ballard, who also is chairman of the Dallas County Commission, the county is described as a “unique and diverse community.”

It is largely rural with agricultural products including timber, livestock, soybeans, cotton, corn, peanuts, aquaculture and horticulture products.”

Drawing national attention was the Dallas County Courthouse which became a focal point of the civil rights movement in 1965 with daily demonstrations that lasted more than three months.

Violence and protests in Selma and other Black Belt communities were alternately condemned and followed around the world and in August of 1965, Congress approved the Voting Rights Act which ended discriminatory voting practices in America.

For the complete article please see

2018 SELTI writing contest: Montgomery-The Capital of Dreams
An exciting new model for promoting tourism attractions is being launched through an innovative writing contest in Montgomery. The Southeastern Literary Tourism Initiative (SELTI) is challenging writers to compose short stories set in or inspired by one of Montgomery’s many unique tourism attractions. The winning story will be published online at selti.organd earn the author a $500 prize from the Alabama Tourism Department and the 2018 SELTI Tourism Fiction Award. The contest is free to enter, and the deadline is Nov. 15. Follow this link for official rules:

“Partner Pointer” for the tourism industry website
The holidays are quickly approaching. Be sure to add any special holiday events to your listing and include detailed information and photos. Your events may even be featured on our Event Calendar.

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