By Brenda Ladun
Photos by Untold Imagery
George McMillan, who is the head chef and owner of FoodBar in Vestavia Hills, says he had a great culinary family, with two grandmothers who were great cooks.
One grandmother was a Southern cook, and the other was quite talented in creating great dishes. Food fascinated George from an early age, and cooking was his way of giving back to his family.
“My mother cooked breakfast, but she worked so didn’t have enough time to cook a lot,” George says. “I started cooking breakfast for the family to give mom a break.”
Like a quarterback, he has taken those early lessons and run with them towards a successful business that is an iconic restaurant nestled in Heights Village. When diners talk about going out for fine dining, FoodBar is one of the top choices in Birmingham.
George uses the lessons he learned early on and combines them with other instruction from some of the area’s best and most prestigious chefs.
“My first restaurant job was at Arman’s in Mountain Brook, where I met my wife,” George says. “Arman worked on cruise ships and got inspiration from spots all over the world for his cuisine. Those travels broadened his palette.”
George later on went to work for Chris Hastings at Hot and Hot Fish Club, where his experience elevated his career and exposed him to a different set of gourmet skills. There he learned the flow of food, working with a team and delegating responsibilities.
“It was a trickle down from Frank Stitt, the famous chef and owner of Highlands Bar and Grill,” George says. “Seeing those relationships from farm to table helped elevate the dishes. Chris worked under Frank, then Chris taught me.”
George says the fellowship between restaurant owners in Birmingham is one reason the city excels as a foodie scene.
“With the finer restaurants in Birmingham, instead of a competition, it’s more like a fraternity,” he says. “It’s nice to have light posts—people we learn from and then we go out on our own.”
Birmingham’s proximity to fresh, Gulf of Mexico seafood also influences FoodBar’s menu, such as the pan-roasted Gulf black grouper with herb roasted potatoes, the Bayou La Batre blue crab cake, yellowfin tuna and lacquered pot roast.
FoodBar is that kind of place, where friends can meet, visit, share stories and cultivate friendships. The serpentine bar filled with the finest wines, beers and spirits also sets up a prime setting for such an atmosphere.
“Our wine list is long with high caliber and high quality drinks,” George says. “We have seasonal spirits, including a house-made pumpkin spice ginger beer tequila concoction.”
At FoodBar every Wednesday night, one can find old golf buddies gathered around the bar, discussing the spoils of the game and munching on their favorite appetizers. While the fried oysters never disappoint, the eggplant fries in a tomato and basil marinara or coriander crusted tuna are delicious, upscale appetizers that should not be forgotten, either.
After graduating from Mountain Brook High School, George toyed with working for the CIA. However, his passion for cooking led him to stay in Birmingham and glean from the best in the business.
“I was lucky to be able to learn about the [food industry] from chef owned and operated businesses,” George says. “It’s my passion. A restaurant scratch kitchen is like a live animal. You have to keep it clean and fed.”
At FoodBar, George says one can get high caliber food and service in an unpretentious atmosphere.
“It’s like me—straight and to the point,” George says, chuckling.
George always knew he wanted his restaurant to partner with local farmers like his mentors did, too.
“Having an ear for the season and an eye for what looks the best is key in creating a place where my diners can be adventurous and feel comfortable with what they eat,” George says. “We keep it fresh and offer a variety of appetizers that range from 10 to 15 items. Our portions are proportionate to what the price is.”
George says he doesn’t like small portions, so he doesn’t provide them for his diners. He wants people to feel as though they get what they pay for, hoping every customer leaves feeling both full and fulfilled, too.
Running his restaurant is like a process–a science in which consistency is key in staying afloat. Everyone working together creates a great environment not just for the staff, but also for the customers, too.
“Everyone is paddling together–my best cook is just as important as my dishwasher,” George says. “I care just as much about the people who walk in the front doors as the people who walk in the back door.
Just like his early beginnings in the kitchen, stirring a pot of succotash with a family friend, George says getting the right mix of employees, dishes and atmosphere, is part of the art of creating a superb dining experience.
Visit FoodBar at 3156 Heights Village. It is open from Tuesday-Saturday from 5-10 p.m. Customers can visit foodbarbham.com for a full menu.