Ollie Irene continues to dazzle a community by staying true to simple, honest food.
“This town is too small to go around copying what other people are doing,” Chris Newsome says—his arms crossed tightly—perched on a stool inside his cozy neighborhood restaurant, Ollie Irene. “I mean, it’s a lot of work, but I haven’t heard anyone at the grocery store or farmer’s market complaining about our food or anything like that, so maybe that’s a good metric for our success.”
Newsome shrugs off the notion that he even needs to be interviewed or recognized with accolades for the food he serves people. That’s not what got him in the kitchen. For Newsome, it’s about being part of the lore, a link in a chain that stretches back generations, with recipes being passed down, tweaked—however slightly—and made new again. “I want to create food that people crave,” Newsome says. “Southern food just wouldn’t be enough for me, I don’t think. It’s learning new techniques that keeps driving me. And I feel honored that I can bring a part of these different cultures to people who walk through those doors.”
It’s easy to see his penchant for pushing his own boundaries forward at Ollie Irene if one glances over the menu that’s constantly in flux. On any given day, one can find Korean BBQ, Gulf shrimp with chorizo, a variety of selections from the “Mozza Bar”—with fresh daily mozzarella—or chicken liver pate, complete with house made Dijon, pickled grapes and a fresh baguette.
“I want to make something as good as it can be, the way it’s supposed to be,” Newsome says, waving hello to a few regulars as they open the door from the cold, the frigid air punching its way inside the small restaurant behind them. “I’m not in the business of trying to do fusion foods; I’m not trying to put soy sauce and peanut butter on something and call it a day.”
Newsome has an intense way about him; it’s a Nick Saban-esque dedication to discipline and honest work. When Newsome talks, his face can turn a shade of red, highlighting his crystal blue eyes and a full head of wispy blonde hair. His aversion to attention manifested itself right away when, before saying too much, Newsome reached down and stopped the recorder, saying, “I don’t like being recorded,” and, without further explanation, carried on with the interview. And like Alabama’s media-averse Patron Saint of Winning, Newsome is bound, almost religiously, to what he calls “the process.”
For him, complacency of any kind must be stamped out. “Any job can be monotonous,” Newsome says. “But something that I’ve learned and I try to explain to people is that the joy is in the process. One of my mentors drilled that into my head. It’s not about the product, it’s about the process. If you don’t love or enjoy the what you’re doing, the product is going to be s—.”
Borrowing another phrase from Saban, Newsome says that in a way, recognition like Ollie Irene being one of the semi-finalists for the 2012 James Beard Foundation Award for best new restaurant, months after Newsome and his wife Anna first opened the doors in 2011, can be like “rat poison” if you let it.
“What do you need an award for if you’re making people happy and they keep coming back?” Newsome wonders aloud. While he is proud to have his restaurant be recognized by a world-renowned organization, he also believes it sets up a certain level of expectations for people who are wanting to come in and dine. “It’s never been our goal, winning awards, because what does it really mean? That should never be how we define success.”
Since first opening the doors in 2011, success (in the form of a loyal customer base and busy dinner services) has been a mainstay at Ollie Irene. But, Newsome will tell you, it’s a tough business and he’s not keen on dwelling on the fickle nature of success. In 2016, the restaurant had to close its original location in order to make room for the Lane Park development in Mountain Brook.
Flipping through a large book of glossy photos his wife had made, Newsome looks over pictures of the old restaurant. Asked if there was ever a moment when he considered walking away—after they were forced to close—Newsome thinks for a second. “Look, all I can say is this: it’s an incredibly hard business,” Newsome says, keeping a watchful eye on the kitchen; dinner service would be starting soon. “You work crazy hours, you’re worried about capital when you’re trying to open a new spot…My wife has been a huge part of this. I guess it’s hard to picture us doing anything else, even though it can be tough.”
As more people begin to trickle in from the bitter cold, a young couple sits at one of the dozen or so tables. “We’ve been wanting to come here for so long but y’all are always so busy,” a woman says, putting her coat on the back of the chair. Newsome must’ve heard the cue because he snaps back into work mode and bolts back into the kitchen, walking past several customers, shaking a few hands and quickly shuffling a few papers that sit on the top of a tiny desk in the corner by the kitchen that operates as the main office. It’s a charmingly small place. And that’s how Newsome likes it.
When the current location in Crestline Village became available last year, Newsome worked on gutting the space and creating something new entirely. From the reclaimed wood bar, the simple brass fixtures, to the small workspace in the kitchen, he and his family built the restaurant with the community in mind. The small space fosters a sense of community and leaves no room for pretension.
The woman orders a glass of white wine and some of the boudin balls, a type of savory Cajun sausage made of pork liver and shoulder that’s simmered; the braising liquid is used to cook the rice and is then plated on a light spread of the house-made mustard. When the lightly breaded rounds arrive, the soon-to-be-a-regular customer takes a bite, gently sets her fork down and says, simply, “Wow.” •