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    Eat & Swig

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    Editor's Note: 
    The details of the project have changed since the publication of this story. To get up to date on all things Gospel Bird (including what you should order!) click here!
    If you grew up in church, you know the gospel bird. A slang term popularized in the American south, the “gospel bird” is fried chicken eaten post-service, usually as a family or congregation. Though fried chicken is no longer so closely associated with Sunday morning, the gospel bird effect is still evident in the Sabbath meals offered in diners and old-fashioned country cooking joints all over the country. Sunday specials at these restaurants are, almost invariably, some kind of fried chicken.
    People order more fried chicken on Sundays, that’s just the way of the world. Maybe it’s because home style cooking is just what one needs after a guilt-inducing sermon. Maybe it’s because the dread of Monday is best treated with some fried goods and a nap.  But maybe soul food, country food, southern comfort food, just reminds us of home: the warmth and familiarity, the simplicity, the blessed cholesterol.
    Dustin Staggers and Eric Morris are hoping those warm and fuzzy feelings make Louisvillians and Hoosiers flock to Gospel Bird, the New Albany restaurant they plan to open in late January.
    Eric Morris                                                                                           Dustin Staggers

    Serving Southern (in) Indiana

    Staggers and Morris have established themselves in Louisville’s sprawling dining landscape, but Gospel Bird will be their first entry into the Southern Indiana market. Gospel Bird’s style of cuisine is near and dear to both chefs: Staggers gained career traction in 2013 with his “contemporary hillbilly” menu at The Monkey Wrench, and Morris rose further to the attention of Louisville foodies with his excellent upscale soul food at Loop 22.  After Staggers left Monkey Wrench and Morris closed Loop 22, they’ve served food that spans the culinary canyon, from matzo ball soup (at America. The Diner.) to pickled shrimp with jalapeno caper relish and sage oil (at Ten Tables).
    But both men were keen to return to their roots. Hazarding a guess that Southern Indiana diners (statistically older, more money conscious, and likely more attached to the nostalgia of cast iron-cooked food) would better appreciate country food than the fickle Highlands crowd, they plan to fully remodel Gospel Bird’s space, at 207 E. Main Street in New Albany—which most recently housed Don Vito’s Italian Bistro. 
    “It’s going to be a beautiful restaurant. It’s not going to look anything like The Irish Exit or Don Vito’s, we’re remodeling the whole place… they ripped apart the whole building. We’re building a restaurant from scratch. There’s going to be a glassed-in open kitchen,” says Staggers. And in the spacious back patio, “we’re going to turn it up in the spring. Full bar. Barbecue. Low country boils. Music.”
    “We’re also taking Ten Tables over to New Albany,” adds Morris. “To reach the people in Indiana who maybe don’t cross the bridge as often.” 

    Cast Iron Country Cooking

    What can diners expect from the menu at Gospel Bird? While it’s still under development, Staggers knows one thing for sure: “I’m excited to bring my fried chicken back. People who had it loved it. It’s been in a cookbook. It’s been in a magazine.  Shit is vicious.” Staggers’ fried chicken recipe, with banana pepper aioli, sorghum and elderberry jam, can be found here. “And honestly, the chicken-fried rabbit.”
    Morris is happy to bring back his Loop 22 rotisserie chicken, and teased a few more of Gospel Bird’s projected menu items: crab-stuffed barbecue shrimp (with cauliflower grits and crispy country ham), Appalachian soup beans (with yucca, collards, house hot sauce and smoked onions), and black eyed pea succotash (with Benton's smoked bacon, fire roasted corn, caramelized onions and Carolina gold rice). Morris noted he’s also experimenting with smoked octopus.
    Also worth noting, according to Morris: “We’re not going to have any commercial fryers in-house. Everything’s going to be fried in cast iron skillets. It’s going to be the real deal, the way it should be done. In the short run it will be tricky, in the long run, you’ll be able to taste the difference.”
    In fact, Gospel Bird needs your cast iron. Through the end of the year, if you bring a cast iron skillet to Roux, Ten Tables, Epic Sammich Co in Louisville or America. The Diner. you’ll get a voucher for a free chicken dinner at Gospel Bird. The bigger the skillet, the better, but note that the staff at each restaurant has the right to turn away any rusted or busted cast iron at will.

    Sippin’ Sweet Tea

    Matthew Farley, the beverage director for all Staggers’ businesses, is putting together a bar program for Gospel Bird. “We’ll have a few beers on tap. We’ll have a cocktail program but it’s not going to be expensive or crazy, it’s going to fit the food and the concept,” Morris says. “Within that concept, I think [Farley] is working on using things in the cocktails that follow the food, like sweet tea or different types of house-made ciders, watermelon ciders.”

    The Help

    How do Staggers and Morris plan to divide their attentions and attendance between all their restaurants? “Just by being as awesome as we already are,” says Staggers, which characteristic bravado. “But seriously, we got good people in place. With Ethan [Ray] at Roux, with Dara [Staggers] at the Diner and Brad [Jackson] at Roux… we just have good people.”
    Good restaurant team members are hard to find (there’s a shortage!), and Staggers and Morris are invariably quick, in every conversation, to credit managers, sous chefs and restaurant workers of all stripes. Morris expressly mentioned his gratitude to Epic Sammich manager Karla Ortega. Staggers sung the praises of America. The Diner. sous chef Lamonte Bobo.
    But delegation really does only go so far, and Staggers admits when Gospel Bird opens, “It will be like it always is. We’ll work a lot. A lot.”

    The Soul of the Thing

    Though Gospel Bird, in name, channels Southern nostalgia, “I’m weird about the term Southern food,” admits Morris. “Obviously it is Southern food, but that’s like saying all our cooking came out of France, so everything is French-influenced food. I like the idea of calling it country food, because it’s a communal thing.”
    “I think a lot of my dishes are aimed at the roots of specific places,” says Staggers. “Whether it’s the South Carolina low country food, the Alabama white barbecue, the Creole food. Even Latin-inspired stuff from Florida, some of the things I brought from Tampa are the comfort foods for Cuban and Puerto Rican people.”
    Progress on the interior of Gospel Bird, image courtesy of Eric Morris
    “I’ve lived in Kentucky for five years, but I feel like I’ve lived here my whole life. A lot of that is attached to the food I’ve done here. I ended up discovering what I really want to cook. I used to want to have a fine dining restaurant, and now this comfort food, soul food, country food…it’s what I really want to cook. This food is like my homage to my inner personal relationship with Kentucky. I’m really excited to get back on the line. I’m excited to get back in the kitchen. I’m excited to cook with Eric. I can’t wait. We’re going cook and get dirty.”
    “I know you can sense the excitement in our voices,” Morris laughs. “A lot of people open restaurants to make money. You know this. This concept for us is a truly chef-driven concept because this is what we want to do. This is the cuisine we’re most passionate about, what we truly care about. So it’s really excited. It’s crazy exciting.”
    Elizabeth Myers's picture

    About Elizabeth Myers

    Big fan of bacon and bourbon, deep fried anything, sweet tea and sweet nothings.

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