Photos by Martin Cherry
I first went to Big Al’s Deli and Catering on the unorthodox suggestion of another chef in town. I was waiting in line at a popular Germantown eatery. The chef working in its open kitchen said, “When I get off here, I’m going to Big Al’s. I don’t know why y’all are here when you could be there.”
I waited for my delicious dish at the still-popular spot. And I was satisfied. But the next time I needed a place for a lunch out, I headed up the street to Big Al’s, a Salemtown secret that’s becoming less of a secret thanks to both the personality and personal recipes of Al Anderson, and the other chefs around town who love him. And, I wasn’t disappointed.
Even before Big Al’s Deli opened three years ago, Al was known around town, having worked at Mojo Grill, Broadway Brewhouse and East Nashville’s Sweet 16th bakery; he’d built a solid reputation for being the kind of chef and baker who makes things you’d eat at home if you’d bother to cook.
Now 55 years old, Al is seasoned enough to be willing to take risks with his life and career. He knows what he wants. He has the chops, and after a certain point, he decided he wanted to be the boss calling the shots. (Although, truthfully, Al lets his customers make a lot of calls other chefs don’t. More on that later.) At the time, Al was living in the Antioch area, and planning on opening a 1,200 square-foot catering kitchen on Charlotte. Right before he signed the papers, a friend told him about a different available spot in Salemtown. “I didn’t even know 4th Avenue went that far,” he remembers. While the spot looked perfect, the realtor told him three people were in front of him in line.
Al prayed for the best, and hopped back in his car. Even before Al got home he got a call that he had the space if he wanted it…the realtor knew the person who took over that storefront would have to be a hard worker, and he was convinced Al was that guy. A year later, not only was Big Al’s on its way to being a success, but its owner had moved to the neighborhood, and now lives near the restaurant.
He admits while he might now be a local, two years later he still hasn’t really unpacked the house, because he’s always in the kitchen. The stools on which people sit in the restaurant are welcoming and comfortable and feel like they came from someone’s home…because they did. “I took stuff out of my house because I haven’t had time to entertain in three years!” Al says, singing the entrepreneur’s lament.
But Al likes it that way. The restaurant that bears his name has 16 communal seats, plus a few more outside on nice days. He likes it that people from all walks of life stroll in. He encourages folks to get to know the people in the seat next to them (this is not the joint to sit and read on your phone while you eat). And, in addition to the other diners, you’ll get to know Al. He now calls himself Big Al, although technically, he says, he is Little Al. “My dad is the real Big Al. He was killed by a drunk driver and if he were alive he would be here with me right now in the kitchen and I would probably be sick of him, but he would help me every day.”
Al serves up a combination of southern food, soul food and whatever folks in the neighborhood want to eat. “Only about 30 percent of this menu existed three years ago,” he says. If someone asks for shrimp and grits—something he knows how to make, having grown up in the Low Country—he’ll make it. Jerk chicken, barbecue pork: “The menu keeps growing because I listen to customers. If I put a special on the menu and they like it, I keep it,” he says. Biscuits and eggs made to order bring in the breakfast crowd. “I get bored with doing the same things every day, so I like to try new things.”
Al taught himself to cook, some by necessity. “I am the only one in my family of seven who likes spicy food. I always wanted to cook spicy food and my mother didn’t like it. My older sister started cooking when she was 16 and she was courageous, so I just followed her,” he says. He learned to bake, too, because his mother wasn’t much of a baker (although she was a good cook) and he wanted to fill in the gaps. Al wasn’t a big meat eater (although his following for meat dishes would fool anyone about that), so learning to make other dishes allowed him to feed his personal preferences.
The restaurant is not open for dinner, but the kitchen is always cooking, as Big Al’s handles catering for weddings and other special events. Like every entrepreneur, Al also needs some down time, which he often spends with his right foot on the gas and the top of his convertible down. As the neighborhood continues to change, Al hopes to adapt to what residents need. He plans to offer takeout dinners that can be ordered during breakfast and then will be ready for pickup when busy parents get home after work.
In past summers, he’s cooked with veggies grown from his garden behind the restaurant.
But more important than the dishes themselves, or where the ingredients come from, Al says, is the vibe of his homey eatery. “A dining experience is not just food. It is being with people who truly really respect you, about care about you,” he says. “That’s what matters to me. I love my customers.”