Taking it to The Yard

v51a6535-editChef Haller Magee adds to the flavor of downtown.

By Rosalind Fournier // Photography by Beau Gustafson

Give Executive Chef Haller Magee some folks to feed—preferably a lot of them, and ideally those with a sense of adventure—and he’ll always be up to the challenge. That helps to explain some of the bold choices he’s made along the way to his current position as executive chef for The Yard, a dynamic fine-dining restaurant located inside the new Elyton Hotel downtown. Along with his role as executive chef for The Yard, he also oversees food operations for the entire hotel, including Moon Shine, the rooftop restaurant and bar. Magee seems to thrive under the pressure. When he told a friend and business associate he planned to take the job at the Elyton, his friend questioned his sanity. “I told him it was a hotel,” Magee recalls. “He said, ‘Are you crazy?’ I said, ‘Maybe just enough.’”

But Magee’s career trajectory had already demonstrated his willingness to take on new adventures. At a young age he had jobs washing dishes at different restaurants in Jackson, Miss., where he’s from—at first just to make some spending money, but he found he really liked the atmosphere. “That actually led to progressing within those restaurants to starting to prep and cook,” Magee says, “and I kind of fell in love with it. The organized chaos of dinner service and making sure everything is done in order in a timely manner, I really liked that.”

He eventually found his way to Birmingham and in 2005 went to work for Satterfield’s, a popular fine-dining restaurant in Cahaba Heights. He was promoted to executive chef within a few years—ultimately staying for 10, making it one of the defining experiences, before now, of his career.

“Satterfield’s gave me a really cool platform and the opportunity to actually cook the food that I think helped define Satterfield’s during those years,” Magee says. “There was a moment of clarity there that was significant in where my career was going, and eventually helped lead me to here.”

v51a6501-editMagee’s career took a couple of interesting turns after after he left Satterfield’s in 2014—learning curves he enjoyed and ultimately helped lead him to where he is now. First he was approached by brothers Jeff, Chris and Jason Bajalieh (of “Sol’s” and “Slice” fame) to help open a new concept eatery/sports bar called Sky Castle in Lakeview. “We brainstormed what we thought it could potentially be and put ideas together, and then we did it. That was one hell of an experience,” he says. “That was a seven-day-a-week operation, lunch and dinner. I had a good time doing it, and I’d like to think it was kind of a primer for doing this—especially the schedule.” He and the Bajaliehs eventually parted ways, though, when the receipts clearly showed the demographic was less interested in roasted cauliflower than buffalo wings, and the burgers were outselling the grouper something like 10 to one. “That made perfect sense,” Magee says, “but at the same time, I thought, ‘I didn’t come this far just to do burgers. I still have a lot more cool, creative ideas I want to pursue.” After another brief detour, this time in Fairhope with a quieter, fine-dining restaurant—where the food was excellent but the atmosphere a little staid for Magee’s taste—Magee landed the job with the Elyton.

Housed in the old Empire Building downtown, which dates back to 1909, the Elyton has been newly renovated as part of the Autograph Collection of hotels owned by Marriot. As its signature restaurant, the Yard reflects both the building’s rich heritage and its forward-looking attitude toward food and hospitality. Pristine marble comingles with rustic wooden and iron accents (many preserved and repurposed from materials found in the building during renovations); elegant upholstered bar chairs complement the smoked mirrors and exposed brick to create “kind of an antebellum farmhouse feel, but with sophistication,” Magee says. Its pedigree includes having had Chris Hastings, owner and executive chef of Hot & Hot Fish Club and OvenBird, as a consultant on the project in the beginning. v51a6511-edit

Magee says the opportunity to create a new menu from scratch again excited him, giving him the chance to make the kind of high-quality, farm-to-table food he loves, using his passion for and knowledge of horticulture (note the horticulture-themed tattoo running up Magee’s left arm) to bring in the best ingredients possible. “When I build a menu, I base it on the fact that I know it’s going to develop sales, of course, but at the same time it would be something that I would love to eat,” Magee says. “After that, it’s really just working to get the best ingredients. If we start with really good ingredients, it’s always going to shine.”

With The Yard almost every day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (on Sundays the restaurant closes after brunch, though Moon Shine is open and room service is always available), Magee has plenty of opportunities to keep pushing the envelope and giving diners new experiences. “It’s ever changing, just like seasons,” Magee says. “It’s always going to keep moving into a different direction, so it’s not going to be stale when you come back in, like you’ve already had five out of the 10 things that are on the menu, and you’re bored with it. If that happens, I’m bored with cooking it, right? So it’s time for me to keep it evolving as well.”

Magee recently introduced a new menu with some of his favorite classics, like steak frites, quail, and duck, as well as his own take on shrimp & grits and macaroni and cheese. The hotel describes the dinner offerings, which change regularly, and ambience as “Southern progressive cuisine rivaled by our spirit and passion that is approachable, welcoming and a haven for those who simply want to enjoy Southern hospitality.”v51a6521-edit

Magee says Birmingham’s growing reputation as a foodie town—and the stiff competition that drives it—isn’t something he spends much time thinking about. “I could give you a lot of different answers for that, but really, I’m just cooking what I want to eat and hoping that others enjoy the same things that I like to eat,” he says. “That’s an honest answer. So I try not to get into avenues of being in a food-centric town, thinking about this guy doing it this way, this guy doing it that way, this chef doing that…just make it your own, and cook from the heart.”

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