Chef’s Table: David Bancroft

How an all-star Alabama chef reinvigorates Southern meals.

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Photo courtesy Stephen DeVries

If you ask acclaimed Alabama chef David Bancroft, there’s never been a time when he didn’t love to eat. Since he was raised in a food-loving family, he was hooked from the start. His grandfather was a cattleman, fish farmer, peanut farmer, cotton gin owner, and avid gardener; his mother and grandmother were both amazing cooks, and he was a child with an infectious curiosity for good-tasting food.

“My grandfather was a part of all of the major crops in Alabama,” David remembers. “I was accustomed to lots of fresh vegetables and meals around a long family table, but the best thing my mother did was hot water cornbread—little crispy, crunchy cornbread pancakes she fried in a cast-iron skillet. They had to be made with [Alabama milled] Pollard’s white cornmeal.”

Photo courtesy Alabama Cravings: The Most Requested Recipes from Alabama Restaurants Past & Present

Alabama born and Texas raised, David drew from those around him—hunting and gardening with his grandfather, following his grandmothers around the kitchen, and experimenting every chance he got. But it wasn’t until college that David dabbled in the world of cooking for others.

Returning to his Alabama roots, he attended Auburn University, where he served as kitchen steward in his fraternity, often frying pounds of crispy catfish or smoking massive Boston butts for the entire group. What may have seemed like a burdensome job to many brought David great joy and unknowingly sparked a life-long career.

Photo courtesy Stephen DeVries

“It was really hands-on, but once I began, I never stopped,” David says. “I enjoyed the feeling of those long family tables, and the excitement that everyone enjoyed while eating a good meal prepared properly. I just loved that experience. It reminded me of my childhood every single time.”

After honing his craft, David knew he had found his niche. When it came time to open up his first restaurant, it was his childhood experiences combined with his keen culinary instinct that served as inspiration for the award-winning eatery.

Opened in 2013, Acre is an upscale Southern hotspot situated on a roughly one-acre plot in the heart of downtown Auburn. In addition to the brick and mortar building, David has planted gardens and orchards around the parking lot where he grows everything from peppery collard greens to juicy peaches, just like his grandfather once did on the family farm. It’s both practical and sustainable, facilitating the seasonally changing menus and making use of the land.

Photo courtesy Stephen DeVries

“It’s unique to have a piece of land and utilize it in the way we have, downtown in a collegiate setting,” he explains. “We had to go through some hoops to plant the types of trees that we wanted because the city has beautification requirements. But we just swapped out peach trees for crepe myrtles, rosemary for boxwoods, and blueberries for camellias. Now, we’re able to meet those standards, but do it in an edible way.”

With an earthy, rustic charm and well-crafted menu to match, Acre has become a local favorite. Boasting dishes like fried catfish dressed up with fresh crab salad, crispy fried okra served in miniature castiron skillets, and sweet corn cobbler topped with ice cream and fruit preserves, the food is Southern at heart but strewn with creativity.

“I wanted it to redeliver a lot of the South’s favorite concepts,” David explains. “Collard greens, cornbread, and butter beans—I wanted to repackage some of those dishes and do them more sustainably.”

Photo courtesy Stephen DeVries

Just last year, David opened his second Auburn restaurant called Bow & Arrow, a more casual, family-friendly concept. This nod to his Texas upbringing combines hearty Texas barbecue and potluck favorites—think tender smoked brisket, racks of ribs, and sides like flavorful camp beans and Tater Tot casserole, a Bancroft family favorite.

Now a James Beard Award-nominated chef, David brings his passion to the plate with every meal. And from start to finish, cast iron plays a major part.

“We use cast iron in every versatile way you could imagine,” David says. “We cook all kinds of things in it and even use skillets as steak weights. We’ll get two skillets sizzling hot, and put a big fat rib-eye in one skillet, and lay the other upside-down on top of the steak to get a great sear.”

His work is about paying homage to his childhood and the figures who raised him, so it’s only natural for David to use the cast-iron pieces inherited from his grandmother in his own cooking.

“You just can’t re-create a grandmother’s old cast iron that’s been through every battle it could go through,” he says. And it’s in these passed-down pans that David continues to honor and celebrate the flavors of his childhood through every dish.

Charred Sweet Corn Cobbler
Author: 
Serves: 6 servings
 
This sweet, cornbread-like cobbler is packed with fresh corn flavor. It can also be baked in a 12-inch cast-iron skillet at the same temperature until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes.
Ingredients
  • 2 ears fresh corn, shucked
  • 1⅓ cups all-purpose flour
  • ⅔ cup plain yellow cornmeal
  • ⅔ cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1⅓ cups whole milk
  • ¼ cup unsalted butter, melted
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • Fig jam and vanilla ice cream, to serve
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 375°. Place 6 (8- to 10-ounce) cast-iron gratin dishes on a rimmed baking sheet. Place in oven to preheat.
  2. In a large cast-iron skillet, cook corn over high heat until slightly charred, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate. Let stand until cool enough to handle. Cut corn kernels off cobs.
  3. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, and salt. In a small bowl, whisk together eggs and milk. Add egg mixture to flour mixture, whisking to combine. Fold in charred corn and melted butter.
  4. Carefully remove baking sheet from oven. Place 1 tablespoon butter in each hot gratin dish. Using a pastry brush, carefully brush to coat dishes with butter. Divide batter among dishes, filling halfway full.
  5. Bake until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Serve warm with jam and ice cream.

 

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