We’re thrilled to introduce you to our new Test Kitchen Director, Robby Melvin. Robby sat down — er, stood up and chatted while chopping okra — to share a little bit about himself and what he’s doing in the South’s Most Trusted Kitchen.
Hometown: Birmingham, Alabama
Education: I wanted to be a college professor, and studied English at Ole Miss, then returned to Birmingham for a History degree at UAB. That’s when I started working with chef Frank Stitt. I had worked in kitchens during school, and was pretty good at it but I didn’t think it would be my career.
The Turning Point: I had given my notice at Bottega to focus on grad school. Frank pulled me aside, thanked me for my work, and asked me if I’d ever considered a career in food. It hadn’t dawned on me until that moment, but I went home and thought about it. I knew the search was over, and put away my textbooks, replacing them with cookbooks. That was the defining moment. I’d found my life’s work, and it’s food.
An Education in Food: I continued to work for Frank, working first as the chef at Bottega Cafe, then Bottega’s dining room, as well as working at Highlands. I was beginning to get the bug to move on, and considered going to work in restaurants in New York or California. But I decided instead to work with Chris Hastings at the newly opened Hot and Hot Fish Club. He told me that if I would learn from him I’d get training as good as any on the East or West Coast, and he delivered. I became the Chef De Cuisine.
When Frank started working on his cookbook (“Frank Stitt’s Southern Table”) I went back to work with him, gathering recipes from his 20 years of work. I also went back to his kitchens, working at Highlands and helping open Chez Fonfon.
Then I got a chance to fulfill my dream of teaching, joining the faculty of Culinard (a Birmingham culinary institute). That led to requests to do private catering, so I launched my own catering company, which I ran until I came to Southern Living last month.
Describe a day in the life of the Test Kitchen Director: We test more than 20 recipes a day, so there’s a lot to get done. We work in home style kitchens, using appliances and tools our readers use, so I arrive early to make sure everything is in working order. Each morning our staff shops for the ingredients we’ll be using, and spends the morning preparing food for our 2 p.m. tastings.
What’s a tasting like? We test every recipe that we deliver to the reader, and may test a recipe several times to make sure that it’s workable and the end result is delicious. Our staff eats around the tasting table in a constructive criticism session. We break down each recipe, from the seasoning used, to the cut of the vegetable, to how the chicken has been browned. We talk about what worked and what didn’t so we can develop the perfect end product.
What are you most excited by in your new role? This is the South’s Most Trusted Kitchen, and I want to continue that tradition and enhance our legacy. Southern food has become all the rage, but we emphasize tradition, technique and creativity. That will never change. Frank Stitt and Chris Hastings taught me the importance of technique and using quality ingredients, which is the foundation of any good Southern cook’s kitchen.
I have the chance to bring what I learned in a high-end culinary setting and using it in a home cook setting. At their roots, Frank and Chris are simple, Southern cooks. Before someone can be an award-winning chef, they have to start out as a great cook.
Since landing here at Southern Living and working with Executive Editor Hunter Lewis and the Test Kitchen team I have been having sort of a full circle moment. I have been blessed to have worked in some amazing kitchens for truly groundbreaking southern chefs, and now more than ever in my career I feel that this is exactly where I’m supposed to be. I couldn’t be happier.