He might be a punk rock kid going on 36, but Chef Jon Holland is also the “maw maw” many unenlightened Southern transplants never had. Even for locals, born ‘n’ bred, Southern meals aren’t the painstaking, all-day family affair they used to be. That’s why Holland infuses his memory-inspired dishes with that kind of food-is-love kitchen mentality at Fig Tree Café in Cahaba Heights. “You’re either bringing those flavors back for people or introducing people who have never seen that food culture to those flavors. We have a very strong backbone on tradition,” Holland maintains.
His delicately plated Southern fare caters to everyday folk who won’t gripe about having to walk through a hair salon to reach his restaurant’s restroom. He cares more that they savor every succulent slice of their first pasture-raised heritage pork than if the location or lighting suits their fancy. The slow nod and light-bulb eyes that customers get when they’re creating a new food memory is Holland’s driving force.
“I have the opportunity to provide something different for my guests, and it’s not economically friendly for me, but I’m proud to be that collateral damage. I’m not a stuff guy,” says Holland, gesturing to Exhibit A, his “crappy truck.”
Holland’s humbling attitude is ingrained in his DNA. While other youngsters were pushing away peas, his 4-year-old self was relishing every bite of his father’s mock-traditional Pad Thai. Holland enjoyed an anomaly of a childhood, replete with off-the-wall food experiences, fitting for a fledgling chef. “This idealistic notion of what a chef’s childhood should be is what I lived, in just about every aspect,” he says.
The chef idolized his swanky grandfather, a “big Escoffier guy” with a soft spot for martinis, caviar and Julia Child. He raised Holland’s father in Thailand whilst teaching anatomy at a local university. Unsurprisingly, Holland’s father was determined to recreate the ethnic flavors of his childhood for his own son, whom he raised with Holland’s mother, a Delta Mississippi gal who was going to make sure you ate your gizzards whether you liked ‘em or not. Holland’s stepmother was also a fry cook to be reckoned with, but it was her mother, Maw Maw, who kept the family kitchen running like a well-bacon-greased machine, with the help of Holland, her trusty bean-peeler.
This mélange of characters left behind a legacy that Holland has effortlessly fused into his melting pot of a cooking style. It’s the unexpected happy marriage of flavors that keeps Fig Tree regulars coming back for more.
“We constantly have this identity crisis, but to me, it’s not really a crisis,” Holland says. “We like being weird. We like surprising people. We wanna give you food quality that’s better than some of the nicest restaurants in the country.”
In September, it’ll have been 20 years since this unabashed high school dropout got his humble start, dishing out all-star breakfasts at a Waffle House in Atlanta. “I was a horrible student, and that’s why I picked to be a chef, because I never had to grow up,” Holland admits, half-jokingly.
As the late Anthony Bourdain exposed in his eye-opening documentaries, a chef’s life isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s all been the school of hard knocks for Vestavia Hills’ culinary Rebel. Holland held his own with the “hardcore hellcats” that prowl steakhouse kitchens, dodging fistfights on his way out the kitchen door and into a managerial role. “I fell in love with organized chaos, but I knew that no matter what I did, I wanted to be successful. I wanted to be like my grandfather,” Holland reminisces.
Grandpa Holland’s “never-correctly-sharpened” kitchen knife, though unused, is a deliberate fixture in his grandson’s kitchen. “It will not leave my kitchen, because it’s a piece of him here. And that’s important to me.”
Despite the myriad influencers along the trajectory of Holland’s career, he’s not following in anyone’s footsteps. He’s not afraid to whip up a romesco “the wrong way,” because in his mind there’s no such thing. Culinary preconceptions don’t cloud this chef’s creative process. “Sometimes a dish is very off-the-beaten path. We never taste it and go, ‘Oh that’s dead wrong,’ unless we burn it or over-salt it. It allows you to grow into it,” Holland explains.
When the time comes for the chef to crank out a new menu item, all it takes is about 20 minutes and a little bit of liquid courage, not that he needs it. He’ll perfect a food concept he’s acquainted with by way of tossing the rulebook aside. “You come up with it, you roll with it, you look at every part of it, and you get it done. If you overthink it, you overcomplicate it,” Holland says.
Whatever it is the famous New York chefs are doing, Holland couldn’t say. Keeping up with the Joneses has never been his style. “I don’t look at other cities, I don’t look at other chefs, I don’t care. I respect what Frank Stitt’s doing, it’s legit! But it’s what Frank’s doing. You do what you do, I’ll do what I do.” It may be difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is that Holland’s doing, but that’s part of the magic, as it’s nothing short of masterful.
On a typical summer evening, Holland glides through his domain, mingling with guests, no matter the “sirloin spray” decorating his worn t-shirt. He bears the stain proudly, a token of a bloody kitchen battle.
Fig Tree first-timers would probably raise their eyebrows if they knew the guy chucking limes at rowdy regulars was the owner and executive chef. The refined execution of Holland’s dishes is a surprisingly perfect foil to his brazen persona. He’s not wrapped up in bougie nonsense. He’s preoccupied with mastering comforting concepts.
But that doesn’t mean doesn’t have big plans. “Being Fig Tree and being Chef Jon Holland are two totally different things,” according to the man himself.
Holland, we’re keeping an eye on you.
Fig Tree Café is located at 3160 Cahaba Heights Road. To learn more visit thebirminghamfigtree.com.
On the Menu
Some Summertime Selections from Fig Tree Cafe
- Fried Green Tomatoes
- Truffle Fries
- Crab Cakes
- Fried Crab Claws
- Southern Charcuterie Plate
- Chicken Fried Chicken
- Shrimp and Grits
- Hoppin John with Shrimp
- Diver Scallops
- Fish of the Day
- Fig Pig Pork
- Chop of the Day
- Seasonal Burger