By CHRISTIANA ROUSSEL
Bohemian. Eclectic. Free-thinking. Spirited. These are the words that come to mind when you meet Carole Griffin, owner of Chez Lulu Restaurant and Continental Bakery in English Village. The same words could also define a gypsy-soul, an individual filled with wanderlust, someone who’s very idea of happiness is globetrotting, finding home wherever she lays her head. But firmlygrounded roots are the foundation to Carole’s success. She possesses a certain je ne sais quoi. In everything she does, she goes against type. Instead of flitting from continent to continent, she has instead become the magnet, the force which attracts all kinds of activity to her eateries on Cahaba Road.
Carole grew up in Birmingham but left to see the world. She lived all over and satisfied much of that wanderlust, seeing city after city and experiencing all kinds of new things. But, on a visit home in the early 1980s, she attended the Southside Festival and says that it “sparked an idea.” She saw the community differently, not as a small Southern city but one that was experiencing life as she was. She connected with the creativity that was all around her.
In 1984, Carole opened Continental Bakery and found an instant connection with a local clientele that “got what we were trying to do.” She had conceived of the idea to create a local gathering spot where neighbors could share ideas and stories, all while enjoying artisnal bread and pastries of a quality not found elsewhere in Birmingham. The English Village location was a natural fit for her creation: close enough to the buzz of downtown and Five Points while still being accessible to a sophisticated demographic that adored her phenomenal baked delights. The initial space was small, with just enough room to bake and showcase product and sport two small tables.
But Carole’s dream was bigger, and it would take time to grow. “Marrying the flavors of France and the South, we soon added chicken salad and tuna salad to the menu as well as a variety of spreads,” she said. “Then we started selling wine and beer and staked out some sidewalk space. The neighborhood really responded to a full-scale restaurant and bakery.” The operation required more kitchen space than was available so she had a satellite kitchen in Bluff Park.
There was a lot of activity between the two spots; Carole and her staff opened the Lover’s Leap Café in Bluff Park in 1998, but the reception there was less hospitable than what she had anticipated. While that kitchen space was perfect for producing the foodstuffs needed in English Village, the Bluff Park neighbors were not welcoming of this new incarnation. Lover’s Leap Café was short-lived, closing in early 1999.
But fate has a way of making things right. About this time, some adjacent space was being occupied by Jane Comer’s Elegant Earth, and Jane was delighted to share part of it with Carole Griffin. So, the restaurant side of the equation, Chez Lulu, could expand to accommodate more tables while she could sell more breads and goods-to-go from the shop next door. Eventually, Elegant Earth moved, and Carole was able to take over the whole space and a transformation was closer to becoming complete.
The kitchen is situated firmly between Continental Bakery and Chez Lulu. Passersby might not even know that it is there. But Carole let me in on a secret. When local artist Art Price painted the murals on the glass of the kitchen windows, he left several peepholes. So, if you can spy just where they are, you can see into that glorious space and all the activity that goes on there. And when the sun shines on that scene from outside, the kitchen is filled with a golden glow that is nothing less than inspiring. As Carole puts it, “People don’t realize that there are two faces to the same kitchen.”
During our conversation on the evolution of Chez Lulu and Continental Bakery, Carole always used the pronoun “we,” which I quietly found confusing. I had always thought of these two establishments as the personification of their singular owner. So I asked her about who completed the we in her thoughts. Her high cheekbones rose even more as she smiled at the idea before us.
“I have always been a collaborative worker,” she said. “ There are so many people who work to make these places what they are. We just comes naturally to the way I think and work. Local artist Tracy Martin created many of the tables, painted murals and designed mosaics. We have weekly manager meetings where we taste things our employees and staff might have created. We have a healthy work culture rounded out by people who are dedicated, creative and engaged.”
Shirley Williams is the general manager and oversees daily operations. Chris Richardson is the head baker who ensures that the highest quality raw ingredients—fresh butter, flour, salt, eggs, water—go into each item they produce.
Many of these raw ingredients come from local sources. Their commitment to local and seasonal goes beyond being a passing fad or dining trend—from the beginning, provenance mattered. The staff regularly shops Finley Avenue for the freshest seasonal produce. And in the early days, customers could score a free baguette by sharing a bouquet of their homegrown basil. Honey comes from Tena Holcomb’s apiary at Red Mountain Honey. McEwen & Sons supply the ethereal-blue-hued farm-fresh eggs, which can also be purchased by the dozen from the refrigerated case. Sublimely creamy-fresh chevre comes straight from Tasia Malakasis’ Belle Chevre in Elkmont, Ala.
It was this open dedication to using local products that led to one of their most recent successes. A few years ago, Jason Malone of Good People Brewing Company approached Carole about repurposing the spent grains from his beer production operation. Samples were distributed at one of their weekly managers meeting, and staff were encouraged to be creative. Chris Robinson developed a pizza dough with the grains that has been a huge hit with Chez Lulu diners. The Spent Grain crackers are big sellers at the bakery; they have an earthy, smoky flavor and a rich texture that is ideal with cheese, hummus or chicken salad.
Another customer favorite, the autumnal chestnut soup, was derived in much the same way. A teacher at her son’s school asked Carole if she’d be interested in the harvested chestnuts from her backyard tree. Not expecting such largesse, she was overwhelmed when several dozen pounds arrived a few days later. And now it has become a tradition, as has the chestnut soup that comes each fall.
Taking in the daily specials board, complete with Buttermilk Pie and Bread Puddings du Jour, I brushed up against a vintage rosemary bush and caught a whiff of Southern France, via Red Mountain. I asked if Carole has plans to expand her culinary empire and she smiled once again. “I want to keep things in scale,” she said. “The way things are right now just works. Something gets lost when you try to reproduce something special. There is not that connection between people and food.” And how can you argue with an idea like that?
Christiana Roussel lives in Crestline and is a lover of all things food-related. You can follow her culinary musings on-line at ChristianasKitchen.com or on Facebook (ChristianasKitchen) or Twitter (Christiana40).
Chez Lulu & Continental Bakery
1909 Cahaba Road
Mountain Brook, AL 35223