I often overlook how uniquely lucky we are to live in arms-reach of culinary artisans in the Magic City, who demonstrate a collaborative and supportive spirit for one another. Case in point: Big Spoon Creamery, located in the Birmingham neighborhoods of Avondale and Edgewood, with a new location in Huntsville. Partners in business and life, co-owners Geri-Martha and Ryan O’Hara continue to surprise and delight us with their rotating menu of seasonal, artisanal, and simply heavenly gelato-style ice cream. Walk through Big Spoon’s doors and prepare to be inundated by the deep, sweet, heady aroma of buttercream, sugar cookies, and decadent pastries – you will positively swoon.
Geri-Martha and Ryan met while working under the tutelage and mentorship of Chef Frank Stitt. Geri-Martha served as patisserie chef for Chef Stitt’s restaurant Bottega and its sister restaurants Highlands Bar and Grill and Chez Fonfon. Similarly formidable in the kitchen, Ryan managed several stations at Bottega for three years before moving into the role of sous chef at Chez Fonfon. It was then that they both decided to pursue their ice cream dreams full-time.
In late 2023, the couple launched their Local Chef Series to celebrate and pay tribute to Birmingham chefs who have inspired and supported them as mentors, industry peers, and friends. Running from November 2023 to March 2024, the Series celebrates five award-winning local chefs by inviting them to create their ice cream concoctions, highlighting the personalized flavors of one legendary chef each month during the series.
A key architect of Birmingham’s modern fine dining scene and a mentor to the O’Hara’s - and so many others – Chef Frank Stitt was the obvious choice to inspire the first flavor of Big Spoon’s Local Chef Series. Stitt pitched the team a classic three-layer Neapolitan flavor with an upscale twist. “Chef Stitt uses quality ingredients and lets those shine. His approach and style is to not over-manipulate, which was his approach to his ice cream for the Local Chef Series," says Ryan.
The next chef on the Local Chef Series' star-studded roster was Rob McDaniel, who was featured in December. As with the name of his flagship restaurant, Helen, McDaniel’s ice cream flavor was inspired by his grandmother and his memory of the cookies she baked each year at Christmas. The scoop featured black walnut ice cream with Nanny Helen’s apricot thumbprint cookies.
January 2024 celebrates Chef Adam Evans of Automatic Seafood and Oysters, followed by Chef John Rolen of Slim’s Pizzeria in February 2024. The Local Chef Series will conclude for the current year in March 2024, with a final featured ice cream flavor from Chef Brian Somershield of El Barrio.
Chef Rolen holds a significant place in Ryan’s culinary upbringing, as he served under Chef Rolen for several years in the Bottega kitchen, while Geri-Martha also served as patisserie chef.
When workshopping flavors and ingredients with the chefs for the series, are the chefs’ concoctions based on their restaurants’ culinary themes, personal nostalgia, or both? “We don’t go into it with goals other than to highlight something reflective of them as a person and chef. We ask them to develop their ideas and hone in on them so we can execute them,” Ryan explains. He says that the idea for the series is one that they’ve been bouncing around for several years. “It’s fun for us to partner with these great people we’ve either worked with or have immense respect for."
Now approaching a decade of serving gourmet ice cream, fans will have the gorgeous seasonal bounty of the South to look forward to when the seasons warm. “Broadly speaking, we look for seasonal produce we can find from local farms, like strawberries, mint, and basil in the spring; blueberries, peaches, and blackberries in the summer; figs, plums, apples, and pears from late summer into fall,” he says.
The O’Haras make special note of several favorite local partners, including Petals from the Past and Blue Ribbon Dairy. The latter is a small fourth-generation woman-owned dairy farm outside Tallassee, Alabama. It's run by Michaela Wilson, who delivers their milk each week. It’s Big Spoon’s sole provider of dairy. With the unctuous creamy ice cream iterations to be found at Big Spoon, they’ve ‘got milk’ – plenty of it. “Blue Ribbon and Michaela are amazing,” Ryan emphasizes. “We identify with her because, like us, she’s just a small business who’s passionate about what she’s doing. She’s just working hard to create a great product.”
“I love ice cream, but if that’s all it ever was, there wouldn’t be the same sense of purpose,” says Ryan. “I think that’s what everyone in this community and this industry is passionate about pursuing. That’s what hospitality is about. We want them to feel nourished in the food we serve them, but we also want to nourish their soul by taking care of them and treating them well. That’s what’s special about our industry, specifically about the South and Birmingham. It is a sense of caring about the people, the community, and your relationships with them.”