Come to the Table: Shindigs Catering Chef Opens Whistling Table in Forest Park
Mac Russell learned his way around the kitchen by studying under some of Birmingham’s most renowned culinary kings (before graduating Culinard, the aspiring chef was helping Chris Hastings serve up his revered tomato salad at Hot & Hot Fish Club). But like any good Southern man, however, Mac knows who really planted the seed for his penchant for good food: his mother.
“Whenever we traveled, she always wanted to go to the fancier restaurants,” Mac recalls fondly. “And it really made me appreciate food. She and I would get appetizers and just ooh and ahh and love it.”
Now with a restaurant he can call his own, Mac reflects on his rural Alabama upbringing — and getting schooled in the hard knocks of manning a food truck — and how it shaped his culinary career. As the executive chef of Whistling Table, Forest Park’s newest restaurant located off Clairmont Avenue, Mac recognizes that he has a heavy torch to bear and a heck of a reputation to live up to. Owning a brick and mortar restaurant has been a longtime dream for Mac, who is perhaps best known around town for Shindigs Catering, a food truck he started a few years ago with friend Chad Schofield. Famous for its flavorful cuisines (like the signature pork belly buns that feature pillowy soft Korean-style bread that’ll make your mouth water), Shindigs Catering has been a mainstay among Magic City foodies. The food truck, which Mac and Chad nicknamed “Miss Piggy,” was one of the first to roll on to the emerging food truck scene. Wherever Miss Piggy parked, people flocked.
“’Flavor bombs are what I like to call them,” Mac says in reference to some of his most popular menu items throughout the years. Taking classic dishes, like a grilled cheese, and then cranking it up a notch with added flavor, was what Shindigs became known for. And while Mac knew he wanted to eventually retire the truck and start a restaurant at some point, it took several years for that dream to become a reality. Similar to how he pays extreme attention to anything he makes in the kitchen, Mac wanted his restaurant to embody everything he envisioned. Thanks to his traditional schooling, Mac knew there was a correct way to go about executing his dream. If he was going to do it, he was going to do it right.
“My teachers at Culinard and the chefs I worked for, they were all old school and had been in the industry for a long time,” Mac says. “And old school is intense. They worked my ass off. It wasn’t easy.”
When working on what would eventually become Whistling Table, Mac wanted to honor the fast-casual feel of Shindigs, but also bring something more refined to the table. Maybe it was his way of harkening back to some of those upscale dining experiences he had with his mother.
Located inside the old V. Richards grocery store, Whistling Table’s newly painted navy exterior makes the place sing from the street. Inside, white cedar ceilings and booths give a reverent nod to the establishment’s past, while an upscale bar in the back elevates the space.
The menu, Mac says, boasts “the greatest hits” of the Shindigs menu — plus some new items that’ll no doubt become classics soon enough.
“Starting simple and then just playing around with it — I think that’s what 90 percent of chefs do,” Mac says of his creative process when it comes to crafting new dishes.
As for the restaurant’s name, it’s a nod to what Mac hopes patrons will find when they visit. He wants Whistling Table to be a place where people will not only find good food, but also the good things of life. Friends, contentment, rest — whatever folks are seeking when they walk through the door, Mac hopes they find it at the table.
“Going from a food truck to a restaurant, I’m growing in that sense, but I think I’m just growing in general, too,” the chef says. “In this business, you have to have the ability to not quit. The only reason I do it is because I feel like I’m supposed to.”
Judging from the public outcry for more of Mac’s cooking, it’s safe to say Birmingham accepts the Southern chef’s calling. Whistling Table hasn’t been open long enough to see seasons change, yet locals are already chomping at the bit for the restaurant to open its doors regularly, which it plans to do this month.
For Mac, however, he’s just carrying out a calling he simply can’t deny.
“This is probably the hardest thing I’ll ever do in my life,” Mac says while surveying the restaurant. “And I’m having a blast.”