Here's the dish

Carlile's tomato pie says 'Alabama' to regional judges; next stop, state competition in Birmingham
Wednesday, June 29, 2005
For The Times

Rob and Greta Carlile still can't believe they won. Even after a half-dozen interviews with local TV stations and newspapers, after all the calls from regulars of Carlile's Restaurant in Scottsboro.

It's all been a happy blur, the Carliles say, since their savory tomato pie won the first of four regional cook-offs, held recently at Decatur High School. The statewide cook-off is part of the Alabama Bureau of Tourism & Travel's $2 million "Year of Alabama Food" campaign and its quest for an official state dish.

Early on, Rob Carlile didn't think they had a good shot at winning the $1,000 regional prize, not to mention a chance at the $5,000 grand prize July 16 in Birmingham, and having their recipe on restaurant menus across the state.

All the recipes had to come from restaurants and feature tomatoes as the star ingredient. But coming up with the recipe was easy. Greta's family always begs her to bring her tomato pies for Sunday dinner. And two years ago, Rob finally convinced his dad, Richard, to put the tomato pies on his menu as an appetizer.

As the cook-off approached, Rob almost backed out because he was too busy. And once he got there, his confidence wavered when he saw the recipes and pedigrees of his white-tablecloth competitors. Other chefs from area restaurants included Ben Randall of Luciano, Jason Daniel of Sazio and David Yohn of Starfish. (See page E7 for a complete listing of recipe titles, competitors and judges.)ʠʊʠ

"I just figured there'd be fancy-type recipes," says Rob, 34. "The first guy I talked to (at the cook-off) said he was an executive chef. Over here, we're just cooks."

Greta, however, thought their chances were pretty good. For starters, she can make the pie "in my sleep," though they did tweak the presentation by using individual quiche dishes. Plus, she knew she had simplicity going for her.

"It wasn't fancy, and it was very Southern, and it's very easy to make," says Greta, 30, who also runs The Toad Stool, a children's clothing boutique in Scottsboro.

Besides tomatoes, the pie features other Southern staples, including bacon, mayo and cheese. It's also versatile, she says. Dress it up with individual quiche dishes, a homemade crust and fresh herbs, or keep it simple with a frozen pie shell.

Still, when they announced the winner, the Carliles couldn't believe it. They hugged, and Rob gave Greta all the credit. They posed for photos. And they ran out of the school, reaching for their cell phones.

In the end, Greta's theory was probably dead-on, says contest coordinator Debby Nakos.

"It wasn't about who was fancier and trained more," says Nakos, a cookbook author and former food editor of Southern Living. "Actually, the simpler recipes seem to be more popular among the judges." ʠ

One of the judges, Judy Brown, culinary instructor at Bob Jones High School, praises the tomato pie for its "flaky and tender" crust, a "very good" blend of spices and a presentation that was "so pretty and colorful - golden brown, with the red tomatoes and green basil and onions."

"They all did a wonderful job," Brown says in a phone interview. "But (the Carliles) outdid some of the professional chefs, let me tell you. I'm a Southern girl, and to me, the tomato pie was so Alabama."

That's the goal of the contest, says state Tourism Director Lee Sentell - to find a recipe that is "not too complex" so restaurants around the state can easily put it on their menus, and one that people at home won't be afraid to try.

The Carlile way

Greta says the Carliles had no idea what winning would mean.

"When we found out how much publicity we were getting," she says, "we were dumbfounded."

It all seems at odds with the humble nature of the restaurant. If you are looking for folksy, Carlile's is your place. The restaurant's motto - displayed on the staff's T-shirts - proclaims "Food so good, you'll thank the Lord for taste buds." ʠ

Inside, it's easy to imagine that not much has changed since Richard Carlile and his wife, Susan, opened the restaurant on East Willow Street in 1976. It's dimly lit, with no-frills vinyl tablecloths and photos of regulars on the front wall. There's an extensive menu of homey, Southern food - everything from fried kosher pickles to barbecue and steak - and its Thursday night seafood buffet brings regulars from as far away as Chattanooga and Atlanta.

Adding to the charm is the Carlile family dynamic. Rob runs his own business, Southern gospel radio station WZCT-AM 1330, but always helps out in the Carlile's kitchen when needed. He also sees his role as a pesky adviser, prodding his dad to add new things to the menu.

"Like, all the time," Rob says.

Besides the tomato pie, other successful campaigns include ghost wings (fried chicken wings smothered in the Carliles' white barbecue sauce) and selling their own bottled sauces. ("I'd been on him for years to do that," Rob says.) Now, he's trying to get his dad to cut the steaks thicker and simplify the expansive menu so the kitchen doesn't get overwhelmed at peak times. ʠ

Richard, 60, is friendly but as no-nonsense as his buzz cut. He concedes that so far, his son's suggestions "pretty much went over," but adds, "I don't put anything on the menu I don't like."

He recounts their recent win with pride, but more matter-of-factly than emotionally.

"What can I say?" he says. "It was tremendous. I've always loved the pie. In my humble opinion, it is a very simple but elegant dish that explodes with flavor that will catch you pleasantly by surprise if you are not careful."

He's not sure yet if he can leave the restaurant to attend the cook-off in Birmingham but says, "If I can find a way, I will."

Later, making sure Richard is out of earshot, Rob says his dad is very "hands-on" and not one to delegate.

Rob says he's trying not to think too much about the $5,000 top prize, although if the Carliles did win, they'd probably put some of it toward improvements to the restaurant and set aside some for a college fund for their children, ages 1 and 4.

"You feel confident one day," Rob says, "and another day you don't. It all depends on the judges. It could be we win, but if we have a second set of judges, we could come in last place."

2005 The Huntsville Times
2005 All Rights Reserved.