Willie Chriesman, venerable journalist, explores Alabama’s irresistible culinary scene with newly launched website

By Ariel Worthy
The Birmingham Times

williechriesman
Willie Chriesman

Alabama is where some of the nation’s best food is recognized and Willie Chriesman, who has worked all over the map as a journalist, has a perspective on what makes culinary in the South stand out.

Chriesman is creator of A La Carte Alabama, alacarteal.com, a website about food and drink throughout Alabama. He describes the site as a food journal, rather than a food guide.

“We do ‘My Favorite Foods’ where we talk to local celebrities about what they like,” said Chriesman, of the site which launched May 1. “We talked to (WIAT 42’s) Sherri Jackson, (local jazz artist) Eric Essex, and they shared their stories with us.”

The site is about more than food pictures and restaurant profiles. “It’s about getting deeper and explore different parts of food by other media that aren’t being explored right now.”

Alabama has a lot to offer when it comes to food stories, said Chriesman, a former vice president of news and news director with NBC WVTM 13.

“I think southern food is unique in a lot of ways. If you go all over the country and talk about different cuisines from different regions, nothing has quite the same cache, image as southern food,” said Chriesman, who has worked for news outlets in Denver, Boston, Detroit and Atlanta where he worked for CNN. He was also WBRC’s first intern.

“When you take the southern food culture and [offer] a fresh take on food in Alabama, there’s more to talk about than just hot restaurants and hot chefs, we’re talking about exploring the stories of the people and the places and the trends of things going on in Alabama. It’s about what’s going on in Lakeview, but also what’s going on in Bessemer; and we’re taking that attitude beyond Birmingham, and throughout the state.”

There are other issues the site takes into consideration, he said.

“We want to talk about things that can enlighten people, encourage people, and hopefully lift them up. We don’t want to talk about just the fun stories about food and drink,” he said. “We live in communities where food deserts are real, childhood hunger is a very real thing, obesity is a real thing and those are all food-related issues that we have a chance to look at.”

Recently, the A La Carte Alabama team visited Regions Field to discuss food changes at ballparks.

“When we think of baseball food, we think of the old way of looking at things: hot dogs, Cracker Jacks, peanuts and popcorn,” Chriesman said. “We were interested in seeing what new trends are being done here at Regions Field. We talked about new projects which involves different kinds of foods that might involve sriracha in preparing the foods that they have there. We’re looking at how [the food] is changing … and what we’ve heard is that it adds to the experience of bringing people to the ball park.”

Chriesman, who is from Bessemer, has been married to his wife, Frances, for 28 years, and they have two daughters: Jessica, 23, who helps with A La Carte Alabama, and Samantha, 18.

Chriesman said he is the chef in the family and he enjoys cooking simple, but tasty dishes, like salmon, steak, and baking desserts. However, when it comes to eating, one of his favorites is a simple. “Being a southerner fried chicken is always go-to if it’s done well,” he said.

As someone who has worked in the news for decades, Chriesman, 59, said he saw A La Carte Alabama as an opportunity to work with video, audio and writing and talk about food.

“I thought TV was a fascinating thing, and one of the things that impressed me is the sensuality of food: the smell, the look, the taste of it. So working with a visual media such as video and audio was the perfect opportunity to use the things I have done over the years to talk about something so interesting.”