If Hattie walked through the door of her namesake Saratoga Springs restaurant, Chef Jasper Alexander knows exactly what he would do.
“I would cook for her.”
‘The Hattie’s Restaurant Cookbook’
AUTHOR: Jasper Alexander
PHOTOGRAPHY: Heather Bohm-Tallman
PUBLISHED BY: The Countryman Press, 271 pages
HOW MUCH: $29.95
Then he would pepper her with questions: “What was it like opening a restaurant in this town in 1938? How did she last for so many years?”
Hattie Moseley Austin, the African-American woman who founded what has become one of the city’s oldest and most popular restaurants, died in 1998 but her menu of down-home Southern food and generous community spirit is alive and well on Phila Street.
And when Chef Alexander sat down to write “The Hattie’s Restaurant Cookbook,” he dedicated it to her.
“She was one of these generous people,” Alexander says. “If you were hungry, she would feed you. This is how she took care of her community. She was probably more concerned with helping people than making money.”
The cookbook, which was released in August, opens with the iconic photo of Hattie looking out the front door of her humble Chicken Shack, and tells the tale of how she opened the restaurant in 1938 on the west side of town and then, in 1968, when gentrification pushed her out, moved it to Phila Street.
Alexander mixes in his own story, about a “West Coast kid” with Southern roots who grew up in San Diego and Seattle, and then 15 years ago ended up co-owning Hattie’s with his wife, Beth, a Saratoga Springs area native.
The recipes, 89 of them, include “The Fried Chicken,” the restaurant’s superstar, and “Hattie’s Cocktails,” along with instructions on frying and making stocks.
Talking about hattie
At 9:30 on a Thursday morning, Hattie’s is closed and the chairs are turned upside down on the red-checkered tablecloths. Without the usual high-volume chatter, the bang of the old-fashioned screen door behind me seems more like a loud slam.
From the kitchen, there are the sounds of running water and clacking metal pans.
Alexander, in chef’s garb, dries his hands on a white towel as he emerges and sits at a small table in the homey dining room as hundreds of friendly faces in vintage photos look down from the walls.
Alexander, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America and worked in the finest kitchens in New York City, takes his time answering questions and doesn’t mince words.
Did Hattie ever write her recipes down?
“No, they were orally described. There’s no written record. And that makes it more important to do the cookbook.”
Ernie Waters, Rennie Nelson and other longtime employees passed down her secrets.
Which recipes and menu items are closest to Hattie’s?
“The chicken without question,” Alexander says. “The collard greens, salad dressing, the mashed potatoes and sweet potato pie.”
Collard greens? Why those are fighting words, as Alexander, who makes them vegetarian-style, never stops hearing from people who want meat in them.
“They are polarizing. A lot of people, especially from the South, want pork and bacon,” he says. “That’s the way Hattie did them and that’s the way we’re going to do them. She was ahead of her time in a lot of ways.”
Alexander doesn’t change Southern dishes to please Northern palates.
“We’re trying to be as authentic as we can here. I don’t pull any punches,” he says.
Many customers are stand-offish about grits, and there’s little interest in pimento cheese, a favorite Southern spread. “There’s only a handful of people who even understand what it is.”
A few years ago, when he took chicken livers with carmelized onions and bacon off the menu there was such an outcry that he put them back “on secret,” which means that if you ask for them, you’ll get them.
“They either love them or they hate them. They are more popular with older people than younger people.”
On page 121, Alexander writes that Frogs’ Legs Sauce Piquant “really does taste a lot like chicken,” and at Hattie’s, frog legs sometimes make a special appearance.
“It’s Southern, it’s unique. And the piquant is a classical New Orleans dish,” he says.
Mac and cheese, which has nearly a cult following at Hattie’s, was Alexander’s idea. “I was slightly ahead of the curve on that.”
As for the lip-smacking fried chicken, which appears on the cookbook’s cover, in 2006 it put Hattie’s in the national spotlight, when Alexander won “Throwdown with Bobby Flay” on the Food Network.
In 2010, Hattie’s opened a Track Shack at Saratoga Race Course and Hattie’s Chicken Shack on Route 50 near Wilton Mall.
In the summer, the restaurant feeds the stars at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
“We always do the food for Zac Brown, Dave Mathews, Kid Rock and Phish.”
Like Hattie’s in the old days, the restaurant attracts its share of celebrities.
“Bobbie Flay is in here on a regular basis. Rudy Giuliani, when his girls went to Skidmore. Candace Bushnell of ‘Sex and the City,’ ” Alexander says.
As for Alexander, soon he’ll be off on a book tour to cities like Nashville, Memphis and Montgomery.
Will there be any national TV appearances?
“It’s possible,” he says.
Day by day, Alexander likes “taking care of the customers and my community,” “working with food,” “talking with customers” and “the camaraderie of a good kitchen crew.”
Since 2001, Hattie’s annual Mardi Gras event has raised more than $650,000 for Saratoga area charities.
Following in Hattie’s footsteps can also be a challenge, he says. “A restaurant can not be stagnant. I can’t ignore food trends. It can be limiting at times.”
His kitchen is small.
“I’ve got 10 feet of cooking space. I’m bound by space limitations. But it (the restaurant) wouldn’t be the same if we moved it. This restaurant is unique and it’s important to me that it stays unique. It has a real authentic atmosphere in here.”
In 22 years, Hattie’s will be 100 years old. Alexander is 47.
“You can’t predict the future, but I can see being here at the century mark.”
As we chat, Alexander points to the screen door with its green painted wooden frame.
A few years ago, when the door was falling apart, Alexander found an “old school” guy from Greenwich who fixed it.
“I thought about replacing the door, but why? That screen door is the original screen door from 1968.”
Hattie’s recipe for Sweet Potato Pie
2 cups cooked and pureed sweet potatoes (about 11⁄4 pounds uncooked)
3 large eggs
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice
1 tablespoon orange zest
1⁄4 cup (1⁄2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1⁄2 teaspoon ground allspice
1⁄2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1⁄4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 pre-baked 9 1⁄2-inch pie shell
Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, for serving
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
2. Prick the sweet potatoes with a fork a few times and bake at 400 degrees F for about an hour or until the potatoes are very soft. Remove the sweet potatoes from the oven and allow them to cool until you can handle them, then slice in half lengthwise and scrape the flesh out with a spoon. Puree the potato flesh in a food processor or press through a sieve. This step will ensure a smooth batter and result in a velvety finished product.
3. Lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees F. Combine the sweet potato puree, eggs, brown sugar, cream, orange juice and zest, butter and spices in a large bowl and blend together with a whisk or electric mixer. Pour the mixture into the prebaked pie shell.
4. Bake the pie at 350 degrees F for 35 to 45 minutes. The timing can vary, depending on the depth of your pie shell. The center of the pie should be slightly wobbly when you remove it from the oven. Allow the pie to cool to room temperature before serving and serve with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.
Reach Gazette reporter Karen Bjornland at 395-3197, [email protected] or on Twitter @bjorngazette.