Tuscaloosa Restaurant Week: Chuck’s Fish Continues to Set the Bar
Good Thursday morning and welcome to the fifth day of Tuscaloosa Restaurant Week, where we are wrapping up our profile series with Chuck's Fish, the longtime gold standard of fine dining in the city.
Hungry for more? Over 30 participating eateries are also offering unique items or special discounts on their most popular orders all week long! Learn more and get connected now at TuscaloosaRestaurantWeek.com.
A Big Name to Live Up To
There's a photo of the late Chuck Morgan displayed in the Tuscaloosa restaurant bearing his name that shows him standing proudly next to some huge mackerel that, if you didn't know better, might lead you to believe he was a lifelong angler.
Erin Barfield, a longtime manager at Chuck's and its sister restaurant FIVE, said the giant catch is rumored to be the only fish the restaurant's namesake ever caught.
No fishmonger, Chuck was a prominent Civil Rights attorney who argued nine cases in front of the Supreme Court of the United States and helped overturn Muhammad Ali's 1967 conviction for draft evasion. among countless other triumphs.
It was Chuck's son, Charles Morgan III, who grew up an avid fisherman and entered the restaurant business after a stint as a private boat captain. He laid the foundation for the downtown Tuscaloosa mainstay when he opened Harbor Docks in Destin in 1979.
Barfield said the waterfront restaurant and wholesale seafood market became a "mothership" that eventually allowed Morgan to open a premium seafood place in Tuscaloosa. Both Charles and Chuck are alumni of the University of Alabama and the Druid City seemed like a smart place to showcase the quality of catches from the Gulf.
"So, in 2006, Chuck's opened here in downtown Tuscaloosa," Barfield said. "And little was here at that point except for boarded-up buildings."
Barfield called Chuck's a challenging place to manage where two separate kitchens - hot food downstairs and sushi upstairs - prepare premium ingredients served by a single front-of-house staff.
After 17 years, they remain the benchmark for fine dining in the city against which all others are measured.
Our Mother of Sushi
The Chuck's story is also largely the story of Yoshie Eddings, the legendary Tokyo-born chef who has rolled sushi at Harbor Docks for more than three decades.
Her son Cris Eddings is Charles' business partner, and Yoshie's touch can be felt at all six Chuck's locations.
"Yoshie, man, she's our Mother of Sushi," Barfield said. "She's in her 70s, trains every chef at some point or another and still actively rolls sushi at Harbor Docks and here at Chuck's, she's a rock-and-roll queen for sure."
Among Yoshie's protégés in Tuscaloosa are Brandon Hicks, a sushi chef at Chuck's for 11 years, and Tori Crum, who made restaurant history by moving from a role as a server to one as a sushi chef. They were interviewed for this profile and talked about Eddings with obvious reverence.
"My work doesn't compare to hers," Hicks was quick to say, despite his own decade of experience. "She has a way of her own -- I mean, no one knows it like her, she's been doing sushi for her entire life."
"There's nobody better at the hospitality side than her," Barfield said. "Yoshie can just float around the room, talking to people, hugging them while she's doing her thing and she never misses a beat."
That's the tightrope Hicks and Crum have to walk at Chuck's, where they must be chefs, artists and entertainers all at once.
"20 Ingredients, Put Together Different Ways,"
Crum said she started at Chuck's as a server but was drawn to become a sushi chef because she saw the arrangement and presentation it requires as outlets for her lifelong artistic interests.
That eye for detail pays big dividends, especially in this Instagram era when making sushi visually appealing means more than anything.
"Phones eat first," Hicks said as he cut proteins for use when the restaurant opened later that day.
"Yeah, people eat with their eyes before anything," Crum said. "So of course your sushi needs to look good first. We know it's going to taste good because the quality of the ingredients, so you focus on symmetry, on colors, you want to make something that someone wants to take a picture -- something they want to show off."
Barfield jokingly summarized sushi as "20 ingredients, put together different ways," but it's obviously more than that, and it helps that those 20 ingredients are the very best available.
"That quality of the product just sets us apart," Barfield said. "There are a lot of different ways you can cut costs but also cut quality on sushi and we don't do any of them."
And although the sushi menu stays fairly constant, there is room for innovation downstairs in the main kitchen, where expert chefs have recently introduced a shrimp and chorizo pasta and a shrimp and feta salad.
There, too, ingredients come first.
"All of our fish comes from Harbor Docks in Destin, hook-and-line caught in the Gulf of Mexico maybe a week before," Barfield said. "We have the luxury of actually knowing where our fish comes from, who caught it and how long it's been out of the water."
Several Kinds of Service
Barfield said management at Chuck's doesn't like to talk about 'giving back' to the community but instead speaks in terms of just being good members of it.
Regardless of the language you use to describe it, the Morgans, Chuck's and FIVE show off their commitment to service in every sense of the word through multiple philanthropic efforts in Tuscaloosa.
Any longtime resident is probably already familiar with the Thanksgiving Feast. Not only does Chuck's serve or give away between two and three thousand free meals for the holiday, but they also collect roughly $10,000 in contributions each year that they donate to an area nonprofit, most recently Habitat for Humanity.
The family also runs the American Lunch food truck, a soup kitchen on wheels that distributes free meals, no questions asked, at locations in Tuscaloosa two or three times a week.
"That was a project started by Charles' son as a project in college," Barfield said. "We make a lot of money serving food, so why not give some food away?"
And none of that happens accidentally - Barfield said Morgan has long made a charity-rewarding bonus available to his employees, through which anyone who volunteers at American Lunch or any other nonprofit for 100 hours can earn $1,000 cash.
"That's a Charles program," she said. "Once again, it starts with him, his ideas, his encouragement. We aim to be a part of the community that supports us because we can't do what we do without the people who walk through those doors."
Only as Good as What Happens Today
Despite their reputation as one of Tuscaloosa's finest restaurants, Barfield said Chuck's is still accessible and committed to making every customer's experience a special one.
"There's probably something for everybody at Chuck's. We've got steaks, sushi, seafood, pizzas, fried items, a real kids' menu," she said. "It'd be hard for someone to come in here and not find something they like and want."
She also said employees like Hicks and Crum make the restaurant what it is today, especially in Tuscaloosa, where most places are plagued by constant turnover.
"One cool thing about Chuck's is somebody who came in here two years ago and sat at the sushi bar can come back today and find the same people back there. You just don't see that in restaurants here," she said. "So really the key to it all is your employees - keeping employees, keeping them happy and motivated to come in, and we are blessed to have great folks in all our restaurants. That's a testament to Charles Morgan, who gives the managers in charge the ability to take care of people."
Barfield said everyone at Chuck's is also acutely aware that the pressure is on - that guests come in expecting to be acknowledged for getting dressed up, battling for painfully limited downtown parking and paying top dollar to eat there.
"You can't ever take it for granted," Barfield said. "We know yesterday's service is yesterday's service. It might have been absolutely great, but you're only as good as what happens today. So you're always trying to make sure your mindset is right and you come in every day dedicated to serving, to taking care of your guests because people have a high expectation of Chuck's before they ever walk in that door."
Chuck's Fish is open at 508 Greensboro Avenue and is offering half off one appetizer per table and a specialty item from the bar every day during Restaurant Week.
Thanks for staying connected to the Thread for these features during Tuscaloosa Restaurant Week! If you missed any of our other profiles, get caught up here.