By Sarah McBride
Photos by Jeremy Raines
By age 18, James Washington knew more about how to prepare soft shell crab, fresh grouper and decadent French desserts than the average chef. Serving Birmingham’s elite under one of the city’s most revered chefs was James’s preferred form of schooling.
“It was an incredible experience,” the now 51-year-old chef says of his first job working at Highlands Bar & Grill where he started as a dishwasher and eventually worked his way up to sous chef. “I was just a young kid out of the neighborhood, and I didn’t really have any direction at the time. But once I got that job, I just saw so much stuff that I’d never seen before. It was like going to culinary school.”
Those early years planted a seed inside James that would eventually grow into a dream of one day managing a restaurant of his own. After getting schooled by Frank Stitt at Highlands Bar & Grill and Bottega, James went on to learn under an impressive lineup of other culinary kings like Wolf Gang Puck, Chris Hastings and Dean Fearing. As Birmingham began to rise as a foodie hotspot, James’s cooking acumen grew right alongside with it.
Now, several decades after he first started washing dishes at Highlands, James is no longer sharing the spotlight with another head chef. No longer named “up and coming,” James has arrived.
Earlier this year, James cut the ribbon on Refined To Go, a food-truck style restaurant without wheels. The concept for the restaurant, James says, came from a desire to offer five-star quality dishes without the five-star prices.
Located at 778 2nd Street in Helena, Refined To Go takes southern soul food and gives it a (figurative) white tablecloth makeover. Those who visit the restaurant—which operates in a to-go style fashion—get to pick a meat, two vegetables and a starch. Don’t jump to conclusions and call Refined To Go a meat-and-three, though. James isn’t into labels.
“I don’t really put a label on my food and say it’s soul food. It’s refined comfort food is what it is,” James says. “It’s food I cook from the heart, using some southern ingredients. But I may put a French flair on it, or I may put a Moroccan flair or an Italian flair—whatever I’m feeling.”
James’s culinary creativity shines in classic southern dishes like smothered pork chops with peppers and onions, blackened salmon, collards, field peas with snaps and okra and of course, his famous scratch-made peach cobbler. Since opening Refined To Go, James has enjoyed a steady stream of loyal customers who are able to get their fix of fancy dining without worrying about staying six feet apart (since they can take their meals home).
“It’s been a blessing,” James says, thinking back on his journey to finally opening a place of his own. “I had thoughts for a while that I may never own my own restaurant, and I was ok with that, but I knew that was my dream.”
James credits his success to always doing each job with passion—whether it was washing dishes, flipping burgers or preparing ornate dishes. Without passion, James says, it’s just another job. And he’s never been interested in that.
“It doesn’t have to be high-end food. You don’t have to cook for the elite,” James says. “You just have to love what you’re doing. If you open up a hamburger joint, you have to serve the best burger possible. If it’s a soup shop, then it’s got to be the best soup you can do. It can’t be a job. It has to be a passion. It has to be a love.”
Judging by the raving fans Refined To Go has already created, it’s safe to say James’s passion is a hit.
Because of COVID-19, Refined To Go is keeping limited hours (although they have maintained their ‘Soul food Sunday,’ hosted the first Sunday of every month). To avoid crowds, they encourage call-in orders. For up-to-date menus and hours, visit refinedtogo.com.
What the Locals are Saying
We talked with recent Refined To Go customer Brittany Muncher to find out what it’s like to order from the new restaurant and why folks keep coming back for second helpings.
How did you hear about Refined To Go?
They were featured in a “coming soon to Helena” type of article on social media. I messaged my family about it immediately. We were all very excited that such an accomplished and renowned chef was opening a restaurant so close to home.
What was your experience like?
First of all, when I pulled in, the parking area smelled absolutely heavenly. There was a family sitting at the outdoor tables, and they were all talking about how amazing the food was. The process of placing my order was so simple. I filled out the menu card and walked to the door. They greeted me with such friendliness and everyone, including the chef and owner, said hello! It was like they were welcoming me to the family. And every guest was greeted this way. Sometimes you meet people and just know that God has had a hand in getting them to the place where they find their purpose and that’s the kind of joy that fills this place.
How would you describe the food?
Absolute perfection. Last week was Soul Food Sunday. I ordered the fried chicken, refined mac n’ cheese, collards and peach cobbler. The fried chicken was the best I’ve ever had. I was born and raised in Alabama, so you know I’ve had my share over the years. It was the perfect Southern after-church meal—a perfect combination of comfort food and high quality dining.
With COVID-19 posing challenges for many restaurants, why would you encourage the community to support a business like Refined To Go?
They found the perfect solution to the uncertainty and longing for normalcy we are all experiencing right now by combining the quality of a dine-in eatery and the convenience of a food truck. They also took every precaution to keep their guests and staff safe, which I very much appreciated as someone who lives with high-risk individuals.