Here's the dish
Carlile's tomato pie says 'Alabama' to regional judges; next
stop, state competition in Birmingham
Wednesday, June 29, 2005
By KATIE BYERS
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
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
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
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."