Written by Lindsey Osborne
Photography by Beau Gustafson
The path that ends with Julie Grimes standing in the kitchen, up to her elbows in chicken and carrots, started some four decades and 500 miles away, in another kitchen. Though she’s a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) in New York City, she first learned to cook on her grandparents’ farm. “My sisters and I helped out on the farm, but my favorite past time was always helping my grandmother in the kitchen,” Grimes says. “She was a naturally fantastic country home cook. Nothing fancy, but everything delicious.”
Many years later, the “nothing fancy, everything delicious” philosophy would be the foundation behind Black Sheep Kitchen, which Grimes opened in January of this year. It’s not a restaurant exactly—the team at Black Sheep Kitchen works to provide meals that people grab and take home. The Black Sheep Kitchen hope is that it can provide busy families with fresh, nutritious, delicious meals—nothing fancy, but everything delicious. And hopefully, the result is a family gathered around a table at the end of the day. “It’s the difference that’s at the heart of everything we do. I know there are a few other places with similar offerings to ours, but we pride ourselves on our difference—thus the name, Black Sheep Kitchen,” Grimes explains. “We make home-cooked, family-friendly meals for busy people who don’t have time or interest in cooking themselves. Our foods are not fancy or fussy. They’re just solid, mostly Southern classics, usually with an updated twist. I like to stick to dishes that people know and love, and just try to make the best version of those dishes. We use mostly very familiar ingredients, nothing odd or unfamiliar to people. I try to make foods that everyone in the family, kids and parents alike, will eat and enjoy. Always with an emphasis on fresh, from-scratch cooking and classic technique.”
Grimes has honed her technique with years of experience. What began in her grandmother’s kitchen eventually led her to ICE, but she spent time first as a middle school English teacher and then worked in Washington D.C. While there, she turned to food as her creative outlet. “My job at the time (at an accrediting agency) dealt with regulatory issues and was very dry, so I satisfied my creative side by cooking,” she says. “It didn’t take long for me to realize I wanted to pursue a career in food.” After working her first restaurant job in Nashville, Tennessee, and moving to NYC for culinary school and a stint in Union Square Café, she came to Birmingham to join the team at Southern Living. For 16 years, Grimes worked in publishing, first at the Southern Living cooking school and in the test kitchens, and then as food editor for both Southern Living and Cooking Light.
All of this experience comes into play as Grimes creates the menu and the meals at Black Sheep, which is located in Crestline. During her time at Southern Living, she learned that home cooking should often bypass the “wow” of restaurant cooking and instead focus on reliable, easy-to-replicate recipes. And at Cooking Light, she learned how to make those same recipes with an emphasis on flavor while minimizing calories and fat. She pours all of this knowledge into creating the menu for Black Sheep, which usually includes around eight staples, plus some specials and surprises (you can find each week’s menu on their Facebook page.) “We start with whole birds to get the chicken we need for our dishes. Then we pull the meat from the bones, and use the carcasses to make stock, the basis for many of our soups and most of our sauces. We chop and peel lots of carrots, onions, and other veggies, all so we can make life easier, and a lot tastier, for our customers,” she says. Their staples include favorites like enchiladas, stuffed shells, and chicken salad.
Though she employs a top-notch team, Grimes herself stays as involved with the food as she can. “I love working in a kitchen. There’s certainly never a dull moment,” she says. “But the best is that the work is so engaging on a sensory level. I watch things to check for doneness and to make sure they look right. I smell things for the same reasons. I listen to make sure things are sizzling just right. And I touch things to make sure the texture is just perfect because nothing less will do. And, of course, we use our tasting spoons! No matter how many times I’ve made the same dish, and even when it’s my own recipe, it has to pass the taste test.” Her time is split between the kitchen, sneaking out to the front to interact with customers, and the day-to-day management of the business side of things, which she admits has been a learning curve. Though her cooking expertise was notable, her business acumen has had to expand to stay ahead of Black Sheep Kitchen’s success. “There were and are lots of challenges to opening a business,” she says. “As a small business owner, I wear a lot of hats. I’m confident in my cooking abilities, but I’ve had to take a crash course in business, construction, management, PR, and so much more in my journey to get Black Sheep Kitchen up and running. And most importantly, I’m learning to build a strong team and delegate, because if I know one thing for sure, it’s this: There’s no way I can do everything myself.”
Though Black Sheep is itself the tangible reality of Grimes’s dreams coming true, she’s continuing to aim higher and think bigger when she considers its future. She’s thinking about ways she can expand Black Sheep’s offerings, including placing Black-Sheep-packaged products in local stores. “I started the business with a really conservative business plan, so I could feel confident that my financial projections were built on a solid foundation,” she says. “We surpassed my production plans within the first month, so we hit some growing pains right out of the gate, selling out of items just as fast as—or sometimes literally faster than—we could make them. Once we got our production amounts in the right ballpark, we’re now focused on consistency. And we love to be able to do extra surprise dishes that are not on the menu.
“I’m stumped by how we’ll keep our quality intact on a larger, more mass-produced scale, so that’s a hurdle and a head-scratcher for me,” she says of her dreams to grow. “And I have a couple more ideas for restaurants and other types of food establishments that I’d love to work on when I have the time and resources to devote to them. Ultimately, my goal is to be able to continue cooking great food for great people and have fun doing it.” •