This Alabama chef moved from the country club to a trailer

Chris Amesbury gets to go to a lot of his kids’ football games these days. That was not always so. For years, the long hours of his cooking career meant he missed a lot of family time. One important thing to remember about service industry workers: while we spend time eating or drinking with loved ones, employees there spend time away from theirs.

Amesbury started a job at Arby’s at age 15 and built a career as a chef in restaurants in Huntsville. He also had stints at a bakery, a hotel, and a civic center. He then served as Executive Chef of the Valley Hill Country Club in Huntsville for 15 years. But some 32 years into his career, Amesbury needed “a change of pace.” He left his country club gig and launched a food trailer called Salt + Light in spring 2020.

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After almost two years, Salt + Light is bringing smart, delicious and affordable food to South Huntsville, a city neighborhood often neglected when it comes to compelling new dining options that typically end up in the city’s busier spots, like in downtown, Five Points and West Huntsville.

And with Salt + Light only open four shifts a week — dinner Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays and lunch Thursdays — Amesbury’s work now fits at home, not the other way around. “We were just trying to find something to work with as a family,” says Chris. His wife Robin Amesbury, who helps out at Salt + Light as a cashier and takes customer orders, adds, “It’s nice to have him home early most nights.” And Chris and Robin can easily remember the date, on where Salt + Light was first opened. It’s April 25th, just like their wedding university.

Salt + Light is housed in a black trailer with a kitchen in the back, about the size of a small apartment kitchenette. The trailer was purchased “for next to nothing” and then gutted. After doing some catering for a friend’s Christian camp called The Vision, Amesbury started out as a mobile food vendor with regular hours for Salt + Light. While Chris and Robin Amesbury are the operators, Salt + Light is owned by The Vision founder Billy Dunlap. Aside from occasional catering appearances for weddings, business and the like, the trailer remains parked at The Vision’s meeting place at 10310 Bailey Cove Road. It’s about a block after the Weatherly Road intersection on the right-hand side if you’re going south.

Look for a park across the street. When you see the yellow playground slides it’s almost time to turn right into The Vision parking lot where Salt + Light is. If the weather is kind and you want to eat there, there are a couple of picnic tables near the food truck. They also do a lot of pickup orders and takeout lunches. If it’s cold or rainy outside on a Thursday lunchtime, you might see a few customers heading straight to their cars and eating their to-go’s here and there while listening to a podcast on their car stereo or chatting with that co-worker they have lunch with.

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Crab, shrimp and redfish entree from Salt + Light. (Matt Wake/mwake@al.com)

When I first ate at Salt + Light in late January, I was blown away by the value of the meal. The delicious crab, shrimp and redfish appetizer was only $15. The redfish tasted clean, tender and flaky. Really good. The fish lay on a pile of fluffy rice and was topped with a handful of plump prawns. All of this was bathed in a savory roux-based Creole sauce with bits of andouille and the classic trinity of peppers, celery and onion. On the side, a funky crab cake with herbs. Louisiana food is an excellent change from the usual dining offerings, especially when prepared that way.

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Crab, shrimp and redfish entree from Salt + Light. (Matt Wake/mwake@al.com)

It felt like eating fine dining, just out of a Styrofoam clamshell and on a picnic table instead of a pretty plate in a stuffy dining room. And not that big a dent on my debit card. It wouldn’t surprise you to see the same appetizer at a few restaurants in Huntsville for about double the price.

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Salt + Light’s Sweet Potato Bacon Grilled Cheese. (Matt Wake/mwake@al.com)

Also tried Salt + Light’s grilled sweet potato and bacon cheese, which offered convincing flavor and layers of texture. Hearty and sweet. Crunchy, melty and crunchy. plant and pig. Basically The Avengers of grilled cheese toppings for just $8. It’s rustic, hearty food. The caramelized sweet potato doesn’t overpower things either—and paired well with goat’s cheese, swiss, arugula, and toasted slices of Dave’s Killer Bread. (As a one-man kitchen staff, Amesbury doesn’t have the bandwidth to bake his own bread. He says he’s considering working with a local bakery in the future.)

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Salt + Light’s Sweet Potato Bacon Grilled Cheese. (Matt Wake/mwake@al.com)

Each of these two entrees will satisfy moderate appetites, but if you’ve got more of a hole to fill, Salt + Light has side dishes like crispy sprouts and “trailer potatoes” for $2 each. The few times I’ve been there, Salt + Light has sold many of their .5 pound smashburgers ($10 with sautéed onions, peppers, American cheese, bloody mary ketchup, mustard aioli, lettuce, and pickles on a potato). Roll).

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Salt + Light chef Chris Amesbury. (Matt Wake/mwake@al.com)

Amesbury keeps the menu short and changes weekly. He learned the latter at his previous performance, he tells me. “If you always cook for the same group of people at a country club, you better learn to be flexible and to be able to change things. Because you want them to keep coming back instead of going to this place, this place, this place.

Changing items at Salt + Light include a sophisticated barbecue pork sandwich, Vietnamese-style cauliflower bahn mi-sub, steak-and-cheese-and-mandle chicken sandwiches, chicken tenders with mac and cheese, and a sesame tuna poke bowl. They are in the $10 to $15 range each. The Salt + Light serves family-style dinner on Wednesdays based on entrees like chicken parmesan, bacon-wrapped pork loin, corned beef brisket, etc. Includes sides and dessert and serves four for $44. They will also do individual servings for $12.

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Salt + Light Shrimp Tacos. (Matt Wake/mwake@al.com)

The shrimp tacos ($10 for three) are one of the few constants at Salt + Light. Amesbury jokes, “We were told not to take them off the menu.” Crispy Gulf shrimp, pickles, avocado cream, cilantro, house slaw on flour tortillas. yes this will work Would be cool if they offered a grilled version too. (Pretty sure Amesbury would be up for that). And I would put the crema to the side next time. But that’s a standard move for me with Crema anyway, since it lets me dial in exactly how much sin I want.

Growing up, Amesbury enjoyed the German cuisine that one side of his family prepared at home and the southern cuisine that the other side prepared. Later during his restaurant career, he cooked various cuisines ranging from French to Italian. All of this fed his tendency to mix things up with the ingredients in Salt + Light. Ms Robin Amesbury says: “He’s very creative and he just has a way of mixing flavors and even things that you might be like, ‘Oh, this isn’t going to be good’ and he does it well.”

On my visits to Salt + Light, Robin does it well too, so the service. Before she knew who I was, she was taking my first takeout order fifteen minutes before closing, and they stayed up a few more minutes to wait for my arrival. (It takes about 20 minutes each way to Salt + Light from my Five Points rental.) “People do this job,” says Robin. “It’s so nice to see people coming back, you meet people, the regulars.” Sometimes the Amesbury’s children help out in the trailer. On a few days a week, another part-time employee works in advance at Salt + Light.

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Salt + Light chef Chris Amesbury and wife Robin Amesbury. (Matt Wake/mwake@al.com)

In addition to spending more time with family and working with Robin, Chris says what he loves most about Salt + Light is “building relationships with people that you wouldn’t normally relate to because you just walk past each other.” But with regular customers, “now you can talk about your family, your family, what’s going on in your life.”

Compared to a full-fledged restaurant, food trucks/trailers have lower entry costs. While it often costs tens of thousands of dollars to get a mobile grocery store up and running, that’s only a fraction of the amount it takes to run a restaurant. That has allowed more people to get their food to local restaurants, while food trucks were a thing in Huntsville about 10 years ago. However, sometimes it seems like a mobile vendor invests more in a cute name, luxe ingredients, wacky menu items, and social media play than it does in kitchen skills and culinary understanding to make it all profitable in the long run.

Salt + Light is the opposite of that. So far, they rarely post food pictures on their Facebook page. When asked why, Chris, a ’91 Grissom High grad, says, “Because I’m a slacker. I’m just not as savvy on social media as I need to be.” However, it’s better for a chef to be savvy in the kitchen than on social media. However, Salt + Light does a good job of posting its hours of operation and menu ahead of each service online at facebook.com/saltandlightfoodtrailer. You can place your order at 256-713-8820.

The name Salt + Light also has a refreshingly unhip origin. It comes from a passage in the Bible. Amesbury says, “It is from Matthew chapter five and verse 13 that God calls us to be the salt and light of the world.” And what does Amesbury take from this passage? “Just try to be someone’s bright spot, whether it’s with food or with a smile.”

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