The A-List

Our annual list of people who fascinate, inspire, and make this city a great place to live.

The Chef

The celebrated chef Chris Hastings, fresh from an Iron Chef performance, re-imagines his restaurant, his cuisine and his future.

by Joe O’Donnell

Serendipity happens. The phrase seems a little long perhaps for a well-designed bumper sticker and yet the perfect fit for Chris Hastings at this phase of his life and career.  After 16 years building Hot and Hot Fish Club into a much-honored and acclaimed Southern restaurant, Hastings has embarked on a journey of introspection and outreach that he hopes will define his work in the decades to come.

“I am really trying to look at what the next 20 years look like—as a business, as a family with my wife and children,” Hastings says. “How do we grow and evolve and leverage what we created to stay exceptional?”

A celebrated chef and savvy businessman, Hastings has always had the air of an introspective, thoughtful man, a mixture of philosopher and craftsman in the kitchen.

“I am very lucky to have a group of very successful business people in this community who mentor me,” Hastings says. “One of them gave me a quote that has really resonated with me: ‘Be determined to innovate, be determined to have internal entrepreneurial gains, and then lastly loathe only presiding over the status quo.”

“What I love about that quote is the part about being determined to innovate internally. That has many layers to it. From a business perspective you do things to innovate your business that may not be obvious to the general public. That would be physical plant improvements in the back of the house, or investing in computer systems or in your people. The net result to the customer becomes a better product, managing people, money and resources better, and making everyone happier at what they do.

“How do I take a straightforward look at who I am and where I am in my life. What are my goals, what are my strengths, what are my weaknesses? And through that process and in talking with people I respect in the business community and culinary world, I am trying to set a clear trajectory and path,” Hastings says. “To rest on our laurels at this point is wrong.”

Hastings views himself as a young 50-year-old. “I have more energy today than I have ever had,” he says. The question seems to be how to deploy that energy and drive to make a difference.

“At any level you could look at our business and say, ‘Wow.’ Couple of kids took a risk, borrowed money from a couple of local people who loved and believed in us, and have since built a successful brand. We’ve been recognized nationally and represent our community in away that I think gives a sense of pride to the community.

“But what can you say, ‘I’ve done it.’ What is next? You think about the risks and challenges of becoming complacent or thinking that you’ve made it. Thinking I’ve earned this and need to relax and enjoy our success. That is not the way Idie (Hastings’ wife and business partner) and I think. We are always trying to improve. And there is a lot of opportunity out there. We need to leverage the success we have created to expand, to be involved more in the community, and bring our energy to important conversations about food,” Hastings says.

That conversation is about wholesome, healthful food, sustainable agriculture and access to locally produced fruits, vegetables and meats.

Hastings serves with the organization Bocuse D’Or USA, headed up by renowned chef Thomas Keller, and is enamored with the work of Wholesome Wave, a national organization that develops programs to improve the accessibility and affordability of healthful, locally grown fruits and vegetables. Wholesome Wave is at work in more than 25 states, assisting 50 community-based organizations who manage 250 farm to retail venues, and impacting over 1,700 participating farms.

“I would love to have Wholesome Wave come and work with nutritionists at UAB to discover how we can help improve our food supply for the general public. The system is broken and it is making us sick. There is too much emphasis on the value of processed convenience food and not enough emphasis on the availability of healthy food. The leaders in this community can begin a conversation. As part of the food community, we can help the broader community,” Hastings says.

“The food we do is a privileged thing. If you have the wherewithal to be able to pay us to come in and have a great meal at our restaurant, that is a great thing. But the leadership moment for chefs of this generation is how do we help connect the really amazing suppliers we have to the general public at an affordable level, so that they can enrich their life by understanding seasonal food and the importance of gathering and eating together.”

For Hastings, the importance of the farmer cannot be overstated. “We need to put a higher premium on the local farmer. They are the great heroes of my generation. Everyone for years has wanted to fawn over the chef, but the reality is the real heroes to the chef are these disproportionately passionate purveyors who give their life to oystering, shrimping, making cheeses, growing vegetables, raising chickens and eggs and organic grains and foods.  If there is something I would like to accomplish in my lifetime it would be finding a way to get the things I get at the restaurant that are so stunningly beautiful, delicious and good for you into the hands of the general public at an affordable level. Think about the possibilities of that,” Hastings says.

Hastings puts great emphasis on the farmer and that great food begins there.

“This is an agricultural state that is only a few generations removed from providing lots of very healthy fruits, vegetables and animals. We are not really that far removed from that. If we can find a way to help these small businesses grow and meet the needs of the general public a little bit more each year and then watch new businesses percolate up, like a cheese maker or a honey maker or someone who wants to raise chickens, then our supply side on a micro level starts to solve a very macro problem. We have to work together as government, city leaders and business leaders. There are great leaders in this community, from UAB to Chef Osborne at Culinard to the restaurant community to Jones Valley urban farm. There is a lot of leadership. These are the exciting things I think about.”

On a more purely personal level, the past 16 years has been an odyssey of growth for Chris and Idie Hastings. “The first six years was grind, grind, grind away. Grow the restaurant. Grow the brand. Go to the events, be a part of the conversation of food both in and outside of our community. And we did that,” Hastings says.

Then the couple took a step back. “I had stayed away from the food festivals and going all around the country. Our kids were at formative ages and we didn’t want to do a second restaurant or have me on the road all the time. I wanted to coach baseball and basketball and take the kids hunting and fishing and travel. And we did all of those things in the last 10 years. That was really important,” Hastings says.

“We wanted to focus on the restaurant we had and be present in the lives of our children. We wanted to grow the best young men we could grow, then when they go off to college we would think about how we can leverage our brand. We wanted to focus on what was in front of us, because it is such a fleeting moment.

“Once the Hot and Hot Fish Club cookbook came out, we went out into the world more. The culinary world was changing very rapidly, and I was seeing all of these cool and interesting things,” Hastings says.

In his travels for the cookbook, Hastings saw the advent of modernist cooking and molecular gastronomy. There was no better time to be a Southern chef, he says, and he was getting a chance to interact with the best chefs in the South and the world beyond.

“We brought in talent and began really evolving our cuisine, putting a finer point on it and really trying to make it still extraordinarily flavorful but add some precision to it. If you looked at pictures of our food from 10 years ago and pictures of our food from today, it is a much more precise and technique-focused, while still preserving the intensity of flavor,” Hastings says.

“I am examining every aspect of our business and trying to put a finer point on everything we do. How do we manage better,  think better, have better manager meetings, have a better mixology program, evolve young talent? I am enjoying stepping away from the grind of my day-in and day-out work and thinking deeply about how we can evolve and grow better at what we do. Then when the time comes to do a second restaurant or whatever might develop, we are really, really good and have the right people in place to be consistently really great. I love this process,” Hastings says. “We are not afraid to be internally entrepreneurial.”

Hastings started cooking 30 years ago.  “I always knew I wanted to be a chef and own my own restaurant. I always knew I was capable of hard work and was reasonably good at what I did. But to be where I am today with all of the great things that have happened, there was no way I could have envisioned having a place in the conversation about food in America today. We are now part of that conversation, whether through our nomination for the James Beard Award, or our cookbook, or the involvement in Bocuse D’Or or contributions to food magazines,” he says.

Probably the biggest development in Hasting’s position in the lexicon of food in America is his upcoming appearance on Iron Chef, likely airing early this year.

“Iron Chef was part of the process of rethinking ourselves and who we are. Before if Iron Chef had called and asked if I wanted to be considered I might have shied away from that because I was very myopic and focused on kids and our little business. But since the book and our soul searching, we were at a point where we were ready. It all seems to be falling in place in a serendipitous way.

“Iron Chef called and asked if I would consider putting myself on a list of candidates and I said sure, why not. I may not have said that five years ago. I may not have had the confidence or the understanding of the value and importance of where Iron Chef is in the conversation about food in America. It is a huge platform.”

Hastings, unshaven, un-showered and in a t-shirt, had a Skype conversation with the producers of Iron Chef. “They asked me if I thought I was ready for this moment, because whether you realize it or not this is a very large moment. Of course I said yes. Not only am I ready, but I want to go against the top, the guy or gal with the highest winning percentage. I want to be in this moment facing the best Iron Chef going, win, lose or draw. I want to be there with that person. They said that was the answer we were looking for,” Hastings says.

“Truth is there are no losers, win lose or draw you get your brand, your name and face to be part of the conversation forever. All of the chef friends I talked to said it was the best experience in their lives. They said be yourself and go have fun. Don’t go down some goat trail where you try to reinvent yourself for this moment because you will fail miserably. It was great counsel from my peers.”

The Skype conversation took place last spring. The Iron Chef producers said they would call Hastings back in about three weeks. “A month goes by and I did not hear anything. I figured they are not going to call this redneck. But I happened to be doing some work in the restaurant one day and my assistant hands me the Food Network congratulations letter and that was the swallow hard moment. I am about to go in front of millions of people and produce a great product. I need to prepare myself for this moment.”

Hastings got the call on May 15 and the taping was July 3.  “I made calls to my chef friends who had been on the show. They told me to get my act together and get it done. I locked myself up for a long weekend, bowed out of a family vacation and was in the house for three days thinking this through. I assembled the team to take on stage in New York: Rob McDaniel from Springhouse Restaurant, Sedesh Boodram, and our chef de cuisine at the time, Trip Hartselle, as an alternate.  We realized the enormity of the moment. The questions were: Can you handle this moment? This will be forever in the can. If you set yourself on fire it will be on YouTube forever,” Hastings says.

The group created three menus, set up the Hot and Hot kitchen as a replica of the Iron Chef food stadium, and worked four mornings a week practicing for the show. They met at 6 a.m. and cooked until 11 a.m. And they watched plenty of Iron Chef episodes.

“Idie was there with a watch. You have one hour to put up five plates. We practiced, photographed the food, ate it. We hit snags on dishes on each of the menus where we had gotten too cutesy. My chef friend Mike Lata told me not do anything but what you know. Be proud of what you know. Be proud of your brand and then just go kill it. The rest will take care of itself. We tweaked, adapted and it was an amazing time. It was very grueling, mentally and physically challenging because we had our regular business to run. I have to give Rob and Sedesh tremendous credit. We were brutally honest and they came with great suggestions. They were as hard on me as I was on them. It was awesome,” Hastings says.

The team went to New York on a Sunday. They had dinner at a new restaurant, Dutch. The next morning they went to watch a taping of Iron Chef. “We learned a lot about how the process works. Went out that night. Took it easy. Up at 4:30 in the morning. I slept like a baby. Everyone on the team felt really good. We set up the kitchen stadium, did interviews, met our judges, and are about to step through the door and we are looking around thinking this is awesome, as cool as it gets. The best thing about it was that that moment was not too big for us. You could have lost your mind in that moment and fallen apart like a cheap suit.  It was big, but we looked at each other and knew what we had to do.

“We were happy with our food. We plated it on Tena Payne’s great pottery so we were telling a story about our community. We also brought moonshine, my own personal stash, to serve in Idie’s grandmother’s apertif glasses. So as a digestif after the last course, I served a little moonshine to the crowd. It was a fun moment,” Hastings says.

The results of the Iron Chef competition with Chris Hastings will not be revealed until the show is aired sometime early this year. The actual airdate was not known at press time. Hastings signed a confidentiality agreement with a million dollar penalty clause, so just don’t even ask if he won or lost.

“Life is such an interesting journey. That this moment was not provided to us before now is a probably a fortunate thing, because I might have said that it is not really my thing. I might have thought it was kind of hokey, but it is not,” Hastings says.

“We had an extraordinary year where we did The Today Show, CBS Morning, Martha Stewart, Iron Chef, a Garden and Gun magazine article. Got our kids off to college. Did so many things. It is a perfect moment for us to be examining our next 20 years. Where do we want to be? Who are we? It is an extraordinarily exciting time for my wife and I, and our business. It is exciting for our children, both at the University of Alabama, because they are achieving their own dreams.”

What are Chris and Idie’s children going to study. “They don’t know exactly; but not food. That much we know.”

One thing has become clear to Hastings throughout what has been an amazingly successful journey: Birmingham is a very welcome home.

“Birmingham has really embraced us. We are so fortunate. When we travel and people say ‘Birmingham,’? in kind of  a skeptical questioning way, I always say, ‘Trust me, greatest city in the world.’ That we live here, that we have a business here, that we raised our family here, that we are part of the community,  has been the greatest gift we could have ever hoped for,” Hastings says.

“If I had thought my restaurant would be in Birmingham, Alabama, when I first had my dream and that we would have had this much success that is an absolute no-way. But it turns out to be the greatest gift to have landed in this community when we did. It’s been amazing. The quality of our life, the business climate, being embraced by the community, to have an opportunity to have a leadership position in the community has been tremendous. I would not want to be anywhere else. Could be in New Orleans, or Charleston, or Charlotte, or San Francisco, could be anywhere, but I don’t want to be anywhere else.”

The Singer/Dancer

Anna Marie Dobbins reaches for the spotlight.

At 21, Anna Marie Dobbins has become a multiple-threat talent—a singer, dancer, songwriter, choreographer and actress—all while still a student at Birmingham-Southern College. Her first single, “So Long Goodbye,” which she co-wrote, is currently premiering in the U.K., Australia and other countries around the world.

On scholarship at Birmingham-Southern College for performing arts where she is majoring in urban dance studies and choreography, Dobbins has been dancing since the age of five.

Since 2008, she has been teaching jazz, contemporary and hip hop dancing, as well as acting at Linda Dobbins Dance in Birmingham, where she also does the choreography for competitive routines and professional-level pieces. Dobbins did the choreography for the video of her first single, “So Long Goodbye.” In addition, she also wrote the songs “I’d Rather Be Dancing” and “Live in the Moment.” Her choreography will be performed at the world’s largest youth performing arts festival in Scotland in 2012.

An actress, she can be seen in the feature films Lifted, and Georgia Sky, Footloose and Malo Casa. She has also appeared in the television shows, Dayzloop and Vampire Diaries.


The Conservationist

Adam Snyder helped bring a park back to life.

One of the most exciting turnarounds of the year has been the renovation and restoration of Avondale Park, a project in which the Friends of Avondale Park and the group’s president Adam Snyder played an important role.

“The park means so much to me,” Snyder says. “I met my wife there. I’ve made life-long friends there. Family members long passed are still very much alive to me there. While the Friends have been a constant in bringing this gem back to life, it has taken a team effort of neighborhood leadership, business support, city commitment, and private, local, state, and federal dollars to finally get here,” says Snyder, who is also executive director of Conservation Alabama.

“In the more than 120-year history of Avondale Park, an elephant named Miss Fancy entertained the masses; thousands of children have sought Easter eggs each year; the sweet notes of the symphony rang out from the amphitheater; weddings and community events have been held at the Villa; and a group of 12-year olds brought home a Little League baseball championship to Southside in 1953. With the renovation of the park, new generations will get to enjoy its splendor and create new memories that will make up the rich fabric of our community. This rebirth is not about one park, one organization, or one neighborhood—it is part of the rebirth of a city. And that is something we can all be proud of,” Snyder says.


The Challenger

Former Hoover Mayor Tony Petelos, now CEO of Jefferson County, loves facing a new challenge.

If you get Tony Petelos, newly hired chief executive officer of Jefferson County, to start talking about his greatest challenges, his trek climbing Mount Everest moves easily to the top of the list. At least that’s the way it has been.

You get the impression that a hike up the world’s tallest mountain could start to play second fiddle to the daily commute to the Jefferson County Courthouse and Petelos’s new job as county manager or, as his business card puts it, CEO of Jefferson County.

Before being appointed county manager, Petelos was mayor of Hoover, elected in 2004. Prior to that he served with Governor Fob James’ administration as Commissioner of the Department of Human Resources. He served in the Alabama Legislature from 1986 to 1997.

“It was a very difficult decision to leave the city of Hoover and come over to Jefferson County. At the city we had no major issues. The city is well run, well managed, and to leave there to come to the county, which was facing the largest governmental bankruptcy in U.S. history, well, it was a tough decision,” Petelos says.

“I am a lifelong resident of Jefferson County and I felt like I could make a difference here.”

Facing a perfect storm of the bankruptcy and the loss of occupational tax revenue, Petelos sees his new job and the change in government to a professional county manager system as a new beginning

“If I came here and all we were facing was changing the form of government that would be difficult enough, but with the loss of the occupational tax and the bankruptcy, it has been a very challenging task. But I  knew what I was facing when I came here, and it has been pretty much what I expected,” Petelos says.

“The way I characterize it is that the day we filed for bankruptcy it was the end of an era in Jefferson County of corrupt government and a dysfunctional form of government. There is light at the end of the tunnel.

“Once we pull out of the bankruptcy, Jefferson County will be much more efficient. Making the decision to come here was difficult, but I knew the commissioners,. and I thought they would be good to work with. They did not create this mess; they inherited it. Working together with them one day I know we will be proud of Jefferson County.”


The ImageMaker

Photographer Liesa Cole’s unique vision garners international acclaim.

Some people collect Wedgwood. Others collect stamps, or rocks. Liesa Cole collects “people.” Whenever she spots an interesting character, she documents them with her camera and places the resulting image in one of the many vintage glass jars she discovered left behind in her 102-year-old studio building. Then, the new “specimen” joins the others on the display shelf.

This fascination with humanity is undoubtedly what drove Cole to her profession. Whether photographing people or the objects they desire or the places they inhabit or roam, her passion remains the same. She seeks to discover and reveal the depth of beauty and intricacy of design in each of us.

The world has noticed. The International Color Awards Photography Masters Cup is the leading international award honoring excellence in color photography. This celebrated event shines a spotlight on the best professional and amateur photographers worldwide and honors the finest images with the highest achievements in color photography.

Cole  was presented with the fifth Annual Photography Masters Cup “Photographer of the Year” and first place in the portrait category at a prestigious Nomination & Winners Photoshow. The live online ceremony webcast Sunday, Oct. 29, 2011 was attended by photography fans in 83 countries who logged on to see the climax of the industry’s most important event for color photography.

The awards jury honored Color Masters with 272 coveted title awards and 1099 nominees in 18 categories.

“It is an incredible achievement to be selected as the very best from the 13,321 entries we received this year,” said Basil O’Brien, the awards creative director. “Liesa’s ‘Miss Anita,’ an exceptional image entered in the portrait category, represents contemporary color photography at its finest, and we’re pleased to present her with the title of ‘Photographer of the Year.’”

See the winners at

“People truly fascinate me.….the lives they lead, what makes them tick,” Cole says. “I have been dubbed a ‘freak magnet’ because I am drawn to the quirkiest of free spirits…..I love to celebrate originality.”

As a student of fine art photography at LSU, it never occurred to Cole that she could earn a living with her camera. She was just “wandering toward [her] passion.” These days, as the founder of Omni studio, she drifts happily between the commercial and fine art worlds. On the most satisfying of days she claims it is hard to tell the difference. She also photographs regularly for this magazine.

Cole has a minor in fine art photography as well as her commercial photography certification from the University of Alabama in Birmingham. Cole brings dedication to excellence and a creative collaborative spirit to all of her projects. Her passion for her work is perhaps only out matched by her passion for her family, which include her daughter, Gabrielle, and son, Cole.

The Designer

Couture wedding gown designer Heidi Elnora Standridge Baker continues to stitch together a bright career.

From her blossoming national reputation in the world of couture wedding gowns to her work creating Birmingham’s own Fashion Week (second edition coming next month), Heidi Standridge Baker has built a career from her roots in the small-town South.

From a small town to TV’s Project Runway and back, Baker has patterned her life after fashion. Since the launch of the brand heidi elnora in 2006, she has dressed hundreds of brides from Los Angeles to Dubai.

Baker’s journey into the world of weddings began when she graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2002. After graduation, she designed children’s wear for Carter’s in Atlanta and was selected for season two of Project Runway. After the show and four years at Carter’s, she decided it was time to make her dream of designing wedding gowns a reality.

The brand heidi elnora stays true to Baker’s roots by taking a handmade approach to designing her gowns, which are known for their polished lines and attention to detail. Garment artisans craft all heidi elnora gowns and veils by hand. Brides can now find heidi elnora gowns in sister stores across the country.

New for 2012 is the introduction of Baker’s latest collection, “Keep Calm and Carry On.” This collection is a reflection of romance. Floral motifs in various sizes, colors and shapes combined with exaggerated bows and Italian alencon lace create a lighthearted and whimsical feel.

In creating the city’s Fashion Week (Feb. 9-11 at Pepper Place), Baker is also aiding a long-time favorite charity, Camp–Smile–A–Mile.

The Choreographer

 For Alison Page, dance is a vibrant expression of a healthy arts scene.

The founding director of AROVA Contemporary Ballet (ACB), a non-profit dance company established in Birmingham  in 2006, Alison Cummins Page sees dance as a vibrant expression of a healthy city art scene.

“The continued success of ACB, I believe, speaks to the progressiveness of the current arts scene here in Birmingham as well as a broader sense within our community of cultural renewal,” Page says. “Because of the financial hardships encountered recently, I believe that we are looking for new, creative perspectives that bring us both a chance to make a difference as well as a chance to feel more connected. When you support ACB, you see the visible impact right away, and, as a small company, you get to know the artists on a more personal level—creating a true sense of connection.

“Because of local support for ACB, Birmingham now joins the ranks of larger American cities who have already embraced a more vibrant, diverse dance scene,” Page says. “ACB, and other grass roots art organizations here in Birmingham, bring a deeper soulfulness to our arts community—adding a broader appeal to our regional culture as a whole.”

Exciting themes, multi-media expressions and sophisticated movement are the hallmarks of the work the troupe is doing out there on the edge of dance. Productions include something for everyone, with eclectic music (ranging from Brahms to Ben Folds), evocative themes and extreme athleticism.

Page received her early dance training as a student of the Alabama School of Fine Arts under the direction of Dame Sonia Arova and Thor Sutowski. She danced professionally with the Arizona Opera Company while attending the University of Arizona as a dance major.  Page then moved to New York City and received a Master of Arts from New York University in Arts and Humanities Education with an emphasis in dance and theatre education. While attending graduate school, Alison worked for Disney Theatrical as the assistant to the dance supervisor of The Lion King on Broadway.  Choreography credits include several regional musicals, most notably West Side Story and The Wiz for Skyfire Theatre in Covington, La.  As the resident choreographer of ACB, she has produced over 10 acclaimed new works since founding the company.

The Archeologist

UAB’s Sarah Parcak combines archaeology with high-tech satellite imagery to make important new discoveries.

by Jesse Chambers

Sarah Parcak, an archaeologist at UAB, is familiar with the traditional joys  and tools of her trade. “When we’re digging, the best part is finding something,” she says. “It’s that ‘ah hah’ moment, when you’re brushing down, or scraping with a trowel, and you hit something—a pot shard, a piece of jewelry. You live for these moments, because it’s the closest you come to touching the past.”

But Parcak brings something new to this search for the past, the use of satellite imagery, or remote sensing. “Nothing beats being in the field, but when you’re doing this work at a computer screen, you get to have all these “ah hah” moments,” she says. “As you pull back, you get perspective, you look in different parts of the light spectrum, and this completely invisible world become visible to you. That’s the power of the imagery. It allows you to visualize things and look for patterns and locate features that maybe you find on the ground after 50 or 100 years of excavation, but you can find them in a matter of minutes or days instead of years.”

These techniques have allowed Parcak to help make important discoveries. In May 2011, the BBC announced that Parcak and her UAB team, using infrared satellite images, had found what appeared to be 17 lost pyramids, more than 1,000 tombs and about 3,000 ancient settlements.

These discoveries brought Parcak worldwide attention, and she’s since been named a Ted fellow, joining a group of 25 innovators from many fields and all over the world who will join the elite TED Fellow community and speak at the group’s California conference in February.

Parcak is also the founding director of the Laboratory for Global Observation at UAB, where dozens of students have been trained to use remote sensing to do research on such subjects as health, water management and landscape change.

UAB’s newest academic star points out that satellite imagery must work together with that traditional brush-and-trowel field research. “With satellites, you get a sort of instantaneous result of months and weeks of research, but you have to follow up and be very careful about what you’re seeing and saying,” Parcak says.

The 17 pyramids are an example. “I think one of the pyramids is a definite yes,” Parcak says. “Another one I’m pretty confident about. I wouldn’t publish a paper saying I found 17 pyramids until I went out and found them.” Parcak hopes that the volatile political situation in Egypt will allow a follow-up visit to these sites by her and her team this summer.

Parcak studied archaeology and Egyptology at Yale and earned her doctorate at Cambridge. Part of her inspiration for the use of satellites came from her grandfather, who pioneered the use of aerial photography in forestry.  While a senior at Yale, she took an advanced remote sensing class and thought “what a neat thing” it would be to apply this to Egypt. “And then I realized that virtually no one had.”

Parcak, a native of Bangor, Maine, works on archaeological projects with husband Greg Mumford, also a UAB professor.

Parcak is excited about attending the Ted conference in Long Beach and Palm Springs, Feb. 27-Mar. 2. “You see dozens of these mind-blowing talks and presentations and performances,” she says. She will also have the chance to mingle with scores of leaders from media, business and other fields. “I hope I can take what I learn at the Ted conference and bring it back here and include it in the classroom, and then you are part of this community of brilliant artists and scientists and doers and thinkers from all over the world, and that’s your network, and everyone wants to support you and help you in what you’re trying to achieve, so that’s an incredible opportunity and something not to be missed,” she says.

Parcak is also passionate about the importance of preserving the evidence of our past, which she says is endangered by development worldwide. She is using her new celebrity to help further that awareness. This, she suspects, may be part of the reason she was chosen as a Ted fellow. “From what I can gather and not just from Ted, there is this building sense of urgency that our past is at risk with all the development that’s going on in the world,” she says. “As Al Gore says, we’re at a breaking point in our environment. And we’re at a breaking point with our past. If we don’t start doing things to protect it, it will be gone.”

The TV Kids

Red Mountain Theatre Company helps two Birmingham actors find their way to the small screen.

by Neil Bagley

Last summer, 13-year-old Alex Jones had no guarantees that his hard work would pay off. After three years with the RMTC, he was the one that was picked (out of 80 kids) to audition for Disney XD’s Kickin’ It in Los Angeles, California. Now, more than a year later, the show has launched as Disney XD’s top series premiere in the network’s history. This is big news for Alex, who now resides in L.A. and works as a regular cast member on the show. But he still thinks of home. Alex is taking a break for the holidays to spend time with his family and friends in his hometown of Birmingham. Just goes to show that no matter where you find yourself, it is important to always remember where you came from.

Jordan Fisher has had a tough time out in Los Angeles, but it’s finally paying off for him. He’s been a part of the RMTC program for years, and is one of its brightest, most versatile performers, taking both acting and singing parts. He has spent a lot of time auditioning for parts in L.A., always the “runner-up” when came time to choose. He’s had small bit parts on The Hustler and iCarly, but he wanted more. He finally secured a recurring role in the fourth season of ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager, which will debut early next spring. Fisher says that working on the show has been amazing process. “The cast and crew, everyone involved has been marvelous,” he says. But he owes a lot to his roots, as well. “I’ve gotten but support from RMTC,” says Fisher. And that support goes a long way, from Birmingham to Los Angeles. “I’m back in town for the holidays, spending quality time with my family,” he says. Its good to know that, despite striving for personal and professional success, Fisher makes it a point to give back to his loved ones back home.

The Urban Farmer

Grant Brigham is leading the nationally acclaimed Jones Valley Urban Farm into its second decade.

by Kelli Hewett Taylor

Grant Brigham returned home in 2011 to become the second executive director of Jones Valley Urban Farm. He brought along some cutting-edge non-profit business ideas to anchor this downtown Birmingham jewel as it enters its second decade.

Since 2001, JVUF has risen to national acclaim as a fresh food oasis supported by some of Birmingham’s top culinary names. To help sustain the farm’s educational programs and continue growing organic crops, Brigham has introduced ideas of social entrepreneurship, a national movement in business to make non-profits more competitive and more efficient.

“If people were givers or donors before, we want them to be investors from now on,” says Brigham, who has a master’s degree in agricultural education. “People should expect returns on their investments from us, to know how their money is making a difference.”

Brigham grew up in Mountain Brook, the son of Mountain Brook realtor and businessman Tommy Brigham. Grant has sought out unfamiliar life experiences, living in Uganda for several years, working with small farming businesses in Hyderabad, India, and working as a laborer on an organic teaching farm in southern Costa Rica.

“There was no relationship with food when I was growing up,” Brigham says. “I never went hungry, or went without. I never had to wonder where food came from. Now it’s something I think about often and am obsessed about. Jones Valley has grown from a vision. It’s a business now that Birmingham and Jefferson County need.”

Part of his path to non-profit work traces to Brigham’s friendship with the late Civil Rights leader, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. Brigham pondered how he might have reacted had he been alive during the Civil Rights Movement. “Rev. Shuttlesworth challenged me to see that, as much as I could imagine history, I had to consider where we were in the world now and how I could change the problems in the present,” Brigham says.

Now, Brigham is leading the Jones Valley team in a search for more grant, corporate and government funding and a permanent building to call home.

“Grant comes from a long line of successful business men and women,” farm co-founder Edwin Marty says. “I think he fundamentally understands a non-profit’s needs and successful business management.”

Others agree.

“He’s really smart and understands what it’s going to take to make Jones Valley sustainable,” says Jones Valley board member Nick Pihakis, of Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q.  “That’s so critical—how we can be around for the next generations. We need to make more people aware of Jones Valley, and I think Grant’s going to do that.”

Brigham admits it was a bit daunting stepping into his new role. “This is my first shot being the leader of an organization, so if it fails, the blame is on me,” he says.

The Rapper

Marques Johnson a.k.a. MJ, combines God-fearing humility with Hip Hop swagger.

Originally from Alabaster, MJ began his music career at Wallace State Community College in Hanceville, where he concentrated more on his rhymes than the basketball scholarship that got him there in the first place.

“That’s when I knew my passion was in music,” exclaims MJ. “I have so much love for basketball, so when I was spending more time working on music, I knew I truly loved what I was doing.”

A  showman  performing  now  on  a   regular  basis  with  Erica’s Playhouse, MJ’s niche is in upbeat, non-profane, motivational rap. He produces all of his own music tracks.

“Just like in basketball, you have to be a multi-dimensional threat in music,” says MJ. “Making the beats before you spit some bars, makes it all the more better in the end, when you sit back and know you hit a home run with a solid track!”

This past fall, he created “White ‘n Crimson” from his underground remix of Pittsburgh rap sensation Wiz Khalifa’s hit “Black and Yellow.” Thousands of YouTube views later, the song is celebrated by the Crimson Tide Nation.

The Reality Star

Edgy and exciting Alabama event designer Scot Wedgeworth always seemed somehow made for television. Starting in December and running through the end of this month, we get to watch that notion become reality as Wedgeworth navigates his way through the Food Network’s new original series, Bama Glama. It is unfiltered and volatile, as Wedgeworth brings an over-the-top vibe to everything from a battle between a bride and her grandmothers to Scot’s own birthday celebration. Food Network is distributed to more than 100 million U.S. households and averages more than 9.9 million unique web users monthly.

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2 Responses to “The A-List”

  1. Keith Gugliotto says:

    Note that Grant Brigham is not “The Urban Farmer” at Jones Valley Urban Farm. That position belongs to Katie Davis, the Urban Farmer at Jones Valley for over three years. Brigham’s vital role is Executive Director, which does not include responsibility for daily farm operations. “Urban Farmer” has also been erroneously associated with Brigham’s predecessor, Edwin Marty, although Marty co-founded this inspiring non-profit and initially labored long and hard to cultivate its crops himself. Visit for a complete staff listing.

  2. Adam Renckly says:

    The Farmer in the Hasting’s article is David Snow, owner of Snow’s Bend Farm. Please don’t forget to credit the farmers as well.

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