By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times
Growing up, Raquel Ervin would watch from a stool as her mother stirred eggs into the mac-and-cheese using only her right hand. Before long, Raquel would do the stirring while her mother, Louise George, would watch.
Those lessons proved valuable for Raquel. To this day, she still cooks with just one hand—as the head chef and proprietor of Panoptic LLC, a Birmingham-based company through which she runs a catering business, as well as a restaurant and food truck. Since moving out of her mother’s home kitchen, Ervin has gained a lot of additional experience in the food industry, one that can often get tense.
Ervin is no stranger to the heat that’s not “from the grill.”
“The object of being back here [in the kitchen] is to perfect the product because it keeps everything else in motion,” she said. “You can’t make $1 per hour if the customer is not happy because the customer pays your salary. Once you understand that concept, the heat is OK, you can handle it.”
Working in restaurant kitchens is known to be an intense experience for many people. With line cooks trying to move quickly and other employees trying to do quality control, tempers often flare. The intensity that comes with being in a kitchen, Ervin said, is a result of the care people have for their work.
“When you get into a position like I’m in, [as a manager], and you understand what that passion feels like, then it’s easy to accept those things when they come at you, when someone’s hollering at you [in] the Gordon Ramsay style,” she said, using the British chef and reality TV personality known for his blunt personality and fiery temper as an example.
Ervin is a member of the Birmingham chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier, which is hosting its major fundraiser, Champagne and Fried Chicken, on October 3 at The Market at Pepper Place. The professional organization is made up of a diverse group of women from all over the Birmingham area—chefs, restaurant and bar owners, farmers, food producers, food writers, educators, and dietitians.
Ervin, who focuses on specialty sliders and gourmet sides, is familiar with the culinary industry on both the local and national levels. In 2018, she received a call from Food Network, asking her to appear on “Family Food Showdown.” At first, she was in disbelief.
“I just knew this was a scam,” Ervin said. “I was like, ‘Please get off my phone with this. How in the world?’ … [The caller] was like, ‘No, this is serious. This is Food Network.’”
After the initial confusion, Ervin, her sister, and her niece went on the show and made it all the way to the final round.
“It was such a good experience,” Ervin said. “I think it’s one of those things we’ll never forget it.”
Later that year, Ervin appeared on the Cooking Channel program “Snack Attack” for an episode titled “Over the Moon Pie,” which focused on the iconic pastry that is popularly tossed during celebrations like Mardi Gras in Mobile, Alabama. While Ervin made it to the finals, she “doesn’t like pastries,” so the competition was challenging.
“I was like, ‘How do I savory moon pies?’… I did a chicken-and-moon-pie-waffle play on it. I did a marshmallow and ganache syrup out of the marshmallow part of the moon pie,” Ervin explained. “The chocolate part of the crumble, I made that into a waffle. I had to get really creative because that [theme] was crazy.”
A Family Passion
Ervin, 35, is the youngest of six siblings, following Louise, Regina, Lisa, Lenzie, and Roderick. Born and raised in Mobile, Ervin grew up in a family of cooks and cut her teeth learning soul food cooking from her sister Regina and her mother.
“[I] come from a family with a lot of people that love the kitchen and can really cook,” she said. “My sister [Regina] reminds me of my grandmother, who would always cook. [When my grandmother would] go in [the kitchen], you’d look [in] and say, ‘There’s nothing in here to eat.’ Then she’d come out with a full meal and say, ‘Yes, there is!’ We always cooked and ate, and it was a big deal for us,” said Ervin.
Though her family has always cared about cooking, Ervin said her first real experiences began at age 12, when she started working at the Red Bean Café in Mobile, the second of two locations owned by the 23-years-older Regina. There, Ervin and her niece Jasmine “spent a lot of time in a kitchen.”
“My niece and I would actually be operators. You know, we’d have to run it,” Ervin said. “So, I kind of got a pretty good opportunity to learn [about the restaurant business] and then developed that passion over time. I was like, ‘I really enjoy this.’”
Ervin got experience with restaurant work from “front to back” from her sister, who taught very hands-on, like their mother.
“If we said we wanted to try something or wanted to do something, my sister was adamant about letting us do those things. My mom was the same way,” Ervin said. “I would stand on a stool and help [my mother] cook because I wanted to see [and] know how to do it. … She would trust me and would always say, ‘This child is going to hurt herself, but I’m gonna let her do it.’”
While Ervin was still at Mobile’s John S. Shaw High School, the Red Bean Café closed, following her sister’s retirement, but Ervin moved directly into management roles for other restaurant companies, foregoing college and culinary school.
“I literally had enough [experience] under my belt from working with [my sister] and going straight into [the restaurant business] as a teenager, so I kind of had a leg up,” Ervin said. “I didn’t necessarily have to do the traditional learning.”
In those early management roles and to this day, Ervin has refused to be a “paperwork, clipboard-holding” manager. Instead, she chooses to be an example for other workers.
“You’re going to find me behind the line or behind the counter … doing something to demonstrate what it looks like to provide good customer service, what it looks like to prepare things in a perfect way that shows you take pride in what you do,” said Ervin.
“Seen By All”
After spending years in the corporate restaurant environment, working everything from fast-food to full-service restaurants, Ervin said a couple of coworkers—Pamela and Zadie—told her she needed to move on when they found that Ervin had been putting together food which wasn’t on the menu.
“I was told, ‘You don’t belong here.’ And, of course, I didn’t,” said Ervin. “Those two ladies are still in my life. I still talk to them. I love them to pieces. … Just their push, them saying, “. . . You need to do what you got to do. It’s about time you do it.’”
Ervin started her own catering company in 2014, her first venture with the Panoptic name. She chose the name to mean “all-inclusive and fully visible, seen by all.” Ervin said the word fits both her business and personal life, reflecting the quality and variety of service she provides, as well as the expansion of her business and the “fully visible” nature of her work in the community.
Catering was a perfect fit for Ervin because of her unusual ability to make a lot of food at family gatherings.
“[My family would] look and laugh and be like, ‘What are we gonna do with all this? How did you come up with this much stuff and expect us eight people to eat it?’” Ervin said.
While Ervin’s catering company focuses on soul food, her family’s standby, her restaurant focuses on specialty sliders and gourmet sides. In July 2020, Ervin started Eat at Panoptic as a food truck. She had planned to open first as a brick-and-mortar location, which took about four or five years.
“When you’re a small, minority business owner and you don’t have a lot of massive revenue like corporate franchises, you’re not as attractive to a lender or a company that’s leasing space,” Ervin said. “It can be a struggle to get someone to trust and believe in your vision, so you just keep pushing until that door decides to open.”
Though she had secured a location for the restaurant, the deal fell through before Ervin was able to open. While operating the food truck, though, Ervin noticed a spot in Irondale, a suburb of Birmingham.
“There was a market [in Irondale] that needed local restaurants … with different options, so I parked the food truck there,” she said. “Then [one day], I was riding, going in the opposite direction, and saw an empty building.”
“This Is It!”
After getting in touch with the people renting the building and taking a look inside, Ervin said to herself, “This is it!”
The location looked just like the Red Bean Café, where she learned the restaurant business with her sister and niece so many years before, and Ervin was finally able to open the restaurant on May 1. Unfortunately, just like many other restaurants in the other area, staffing proved to be a huge setback, so Ervin could operate only during lunchtime hours.
“I didn’t have the people, even from the beginning. I hired seven, and I had two show up. So, right away, I had to change operating hours, day one, right after grand opening,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh, no! This is not going to work.’ People can only work so much without being overwhelmed.”
The COVID-19 pandemic had an impact on Ervin’s business, even before staffing in the restaurant became an issue. In March of last year, right when the pandemic started, disrupting Alabama and the rest of the country, Ervin lost 43 catering events in one week. During the period of lockdown, Ervin, who likes to draw and paint in her free time, became best friends with sidewalk chalk and started fine-tuning the menu for Eat at Panoptic, her food truck and restaurant.
“After I got over the funk of being at home [during the pandemic lockdown], I started creating,” Ervin said. “I cooked every day, literally making dishes, working on ideas, and writing everything down. … I really perfected the sliders during quarantine.”
In addition to devoting time to her craft during the lockdown, Ervin also enjoyed spending extra time with her two sons: Aidan, 5, and Ethan, 8.
“[The boys] were fine because they had mommy, and she was cooking three times a day, so they absolutely enjoyed it,” Ervin said. “We also spent a lot of time outside, so I got a lot of good, quality time with them.”
Ervin said Ethan has become her “little junior chef,” having already begun to learn to make the signature sliders Ervin’s restaurant is built on.
Soon, Ethan may be cooking with one hand, too.
Updated at 9:54 a.m. on 9/30/2021 to correct the name of a family member.