Mr. Jim's last vegetable plate

At 79, James Black, a cook at SpringHouse restaurant in Alexander City, is getting ready to retire, but not before he

Mr. Jim was past retirement age when he heard about the fancy new restaurant that was opening near Lake Martin.

"I was already over the age limit," he remembers. "The application said, 'from 18 to 68,' and I was already 70 years old."

He applied anyway.

James Black, after all, had been cooking since he was 12, and he had worked in restaurants almost all his adult life, including in swanky hotels like the Ritz-Carlton.

So he thought maybe that new restaurant and its young chef could use someone with his experience.

And he was right.

Hiring James Black -- or, "Mr. Jim," as most everybody knows him now -- was one of wisest moves Rob McDaniel made when, at 31, he became the executive chef at SpringHouse, the Southern-influenced farm-to-table restaurant that opened outside of Alexander City in 2009.

"We were like the Bad News Bears when we opened this place," McDaniel recalls. "He was our 70-year-old grill cook."

With a menu that features produce grown by local farmers and seafood fresh from the Gulf, SpringHouse has since become one of Alabama's finest dining gems, and McDaniel, a James Beard Foundation Award semifinalist for best chef in the South for the past five years in a row, is one of the state's rising culinary stars.

But McDaniel will tell you he will always owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Jim.

"I don't own this restaurant, and I never will," McDaniel says. "But I feel like this restaurant is a part of my soul, as much as people say that I am a part of it.

"And I think that Mr. Jim is just as much a part of it as I am, because of how long both of us have been here and what we've been through to get to this point. I will forever be grateful for the job Mr. Jim has done."

A tribute to Mr. Jim

Fittingly, one of the most popular items on the summer menu at SpringHouse is Mr. Jim's Vegetable Plate, a bountiful and beautiful medley of squash casserole, grilled okra, marinated cucumbers, creamed corn, field peas, heirloom tomatoes, "pool hall" slaw and a wedge of cornbread.

"I guess it was three or four years ago that I put his name on it," McDaniel says. "I was sitting there one day, and I realized that Mr. Jim made everything on that plate. So it only seemed right that we honor Mr. Jim with that."

During the summer, the $28 vegetable plate is the most popular entree on the SpringHouse menu, and the restaurant typically sells 75 to 80 orders on a Friday or Saturday night, McDaniel says.

"People get upset when we take it off the menu, and they get upset when we don't have don't have it on the menu yet," he adds. "But I've always said that we will not have it on the menu unless all of those things are to a certain degree of perfection."

Mr. Jim's Vegetable Plate will always be a summer staple at SpringHouse, but this will be the last summer Mr. Jim will be here to prepare it.

Now 79, Mr. Jim is talking about retiring again, and this time, he sounds like he really means it.

Next February will be his ninth anniversary at the restaurant -- and he'll turn 80 a couple of months later -- so he figures that will be a good time to hang up his apron for good.

"I'll have to talk it over with him," he says, pointing to McDaniel. "He may talk me into staying a little longer."

The son of a sharecropper

Raised on a small farm outside of Alexander City, James Black was the seventh of 11 brothers and sisters.

"I had a nickname -- 'Brother,'" he remembers. "That's what all the siblings called me until I became an adult."

His father, Newt Black, was a sharecropper who grew apples, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, peas and corn, which he sold out of the back of a mule-drawn wagon.

"Those were good ol' days," Mr. Jim says. "It really was."

When he was 12 years old, though, his mother, Mattie Lou Black, suddenly fell ill while washing clothes one morning.

"Huge balls of sweat started running down her face and she started to shake," he remembers. "We took her in the house and put her on the bed and called the doctor. The doctor was there in about an hour, I guess.

"He said he had to get her to the hospital right away, and she passed away about five o'clock in the afternoon. I don't know if she had a stroke or what because my dad would never talk about it."

Not yet a teenager, James Black took it upon himself to feed the family.

"Somebody had to cook for them, so I just got in the kitchen and started doing the things I had seen her do," he says. "I found out I really liked it."

Some nights, dinner was just buttermilk and cornbread.

"We were poor," he says. "We didn't have much. My dad would kill hogs in the wintertime. We grew our own vegetables. It was just country food, you know."

To St. Louis and back home again

After he finished high school, James Black joined the Army and became a cook in the mess hall. He later settled in St. Louis, where he worked for a few years as a line cook at the Ritz-Carlton.

"I loved the Ritz," he says. "I loved the glitter and glamour of hotels."

Until one day when he didn't love it anymore.

"We were busy on a Sunday morning for breakfast, and there were four cooks on the line," he recalls. "We were putting some food out, and one of the servers says, 'Uh, which one of these is an eggs Benedict?'

"I said, 'Did you go through the same training we went through here, and you don't know what an eggs Benedict is?' And she told me to kiss what she sits down on.

"I didn't curse her or anything, but I had some choice words to say to her. She went out and told her manager. They suspended me for three days."

He added some vacation time to that suspension and went back to Alexander City for a family reunion.

It had been more than 25 years since he moved away, but when he found out that Willow Point Country Club was hiring, he decided it was time to come back home again.

"I liked hotel work, but it was just too much going on in the big city," he says. "I haven't regretted at all moving back home."

He worked as a line cook at the country club for about six months, and then he was offered a job running the kitchen at Lake Hill Restaurant in Alexander City.

"I did the buying, made out the menu, did all of the inventory," he says. "I ran the whole thing."

Mr. Jim stayed at Lake Hill Restaurant for about 14 years, until it closed around 2005, and he later worked part-time at Ruby Tuesday.

Then he found out that they needed help at SpringHouse.

A new home at SpringHouse

They had quite a crew back then.

McDaniel had been a chef at Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham and for the Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Q chain. His sous chef had worked at Highlands Bar and Grill. Another cook came from Taco Bell, and a couple of others had never worked in a restaurant before. Another one had cooked with Mr. Jim at Lake Hill Restaurant.

"I often think back to when we first started," McDaniel says. "There was one day in particular that I thought everybody was going to walk out on us because it was a rough day. And we hadn't even opened the restaurant yet. We were still training."

McDaniel was the one who started calling his 70-year-old grill cook "Mr. Jim," out of respect.

"We've always called him Mr. Jim because he's our elder," McDaniel says. "We had another James (Bramlett) who was my sous chef when we opened, and James and I called him Mr. Jim, and it just stuck."

After about three years at the restaurant, Mr. Jim, who is diabetic, found out during one of his checkups that he had leukemia.

His doctors caught it early, though, and he has been able to treat it with medication without missing any work, he says.

"I'm doing fine now," he says. "I just have to take these pills every day."

Still, when he first heard the news, it got him to thinking that maybe it was time to retire.

"I'm a praying person, and I'm a believer in the man upstairs," he says. "When I came to work here, with my age, I said, 'Lord, if you just let me get three good years at SpringHouse, I'll be happy.'

"And when three years was up, I decided I was going to retire."

After a couple of weeks, though, he got restless and bored being at home all by himself.

"I called Rob up and said, 'Chef, I need to come back to work.' He said, 'Well, when can you come in?' I said, 'I'll be there in an hour.'"

That was five years ago, and Mr. Jim says he hasn't missed a day of work since.

Three years turned into eight

As he should, Mr. Jim takes pride in the fact that McDaniel -- whom he calls "the best chef I have ever worked for" -- is often recognized as one of the top chefs in the South, and that SpringHouse has become one of the region's best destination restaurants.

"I'm very proud of that, I really am," Mr. Jim says. "We had one couple that lived in Columbus, Ga., and they came up to SpringHouse every weekend and always sat at the chef's counter just to see me work. Right now, we are really in the big time, so to speak."

McDaniel and Mr. Jim are the only two left from the original kitchen crew that opened the restaurant more than eight years ago, but as he approaches his 80th birthday next spring, Mr. Jim knows it's time to say goodbye to the job he has loved the most.

Of Newt and Mattie Lou Black's 11 children, now it's just him and his three sisters, two of whom live in St. Louis and one of whom is in Huntsville.

"I never got married," Mr. Jim says. "But now I wish I had because all of the siblings have children except me. I'm the last male in my family living now. I lost two brothers and a nephew in the last six months."

This year, he was ordained as a deacon at Darian Missionary Baptist Church in Alexander City, and he feels like the Lord is calling on him to do something else.

"My legs just don't hold up the way they used to," he says. "The Good Lord gave me the three years that I asked for, plus five more, and I don't want to push it.

"Those three years have turned into eight, so I think it's time I left work and I can spend more time studying the word.

"I'll probably find some volunteer work," he adds. "I have to stay busy. I'd be dead in six months if I just went home and sat down."

McDaniel starts to tear up when he talks about what Mr. Jim has meant to the restaurant, and when he thinks about what it will be like there without him around.

"There have been a lot of folks (come) through these doors that have helped us get to this point," he says. "But none of them has meant as much to me as Mr. Jim has."

There's still time, though, to get one last vegetable plate from Mr. Jim before it goes out of season in September.

"We will continue to make the vegetable plate," McDaniel says. "But unless he comes back next summer, it won't be made by him."

Years from now, though, when guests see it on the menu and wonder how it got its name, McDaniel can tell them the story of Mr. Jim, the elder statesman of SpringHouse.

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Article Mr. Jim's last vegetable plate compiled by www.al.com