By Eric Velasco
Photos by Stuart Franco & Contributed
The seeds that sprouted into 1918 Catering were cultivated in the kitchen at 1918 Berkeley Road in south Bessemer, where Jason and Jamal Brown grew up with their parents and two brothers.
Jason, older than Jamal by a year, started making meals at age 7 while their father worked for the railroad and their mother was on the job as a nurse. He started with jelly toast, scrambled eggs and pancakes before perfecting the SPAM sandwich.
Jamal started out watching but soon began participating. They grew as cooks, and Jamal developed a talent for smoking pork and beef brisket for family and friends. All along their mother, Genetta Brown, encouraged their culinary journeys. “She wanted to make sure we knew how to fend for ourselves,” Jason says.
The brothers graduated to large tailgating events handing out food during the week-long Magic City Classic festivities. As their fan base grew, they decided to go pro.
The partners, based since 2015 in a facility on Vulcan Road in west Homewood, built their business through catering gigs and pop-ups, in which they would haul a smoker to a location and serve barbecue with sides. They’ve cooked for large corporate events, weddings and birthday parties, and they once slung 1,000 hot dogs for a party at a youth baseball field.
Coronavirus-related restrictions imposed last spring—and the cancellations and refund requests that followed—profoundly affected the business. But it also created an opportunity: The Brown brothers put together a food truck that travels to different subdivisions. It’s been so successful they’re considering a couple more, even after their catering business revives.
“Daily there are three different places asking us to come there,” says Jason, 42. “Even a year from now people are going to want to have things delivered. There’s still going to be a need.”
Jason and Jamal call their cuisine “Southern-traditional with a personal touch.” They season their food with a proprietary blend of herbs, spices and salt. The house aus jus, another secret formula, is injected into meats, providing flavors unique to 1918. “It’s a traditional taste,” says Jamal, 41. “Subtle but not too subtle.”
Their specialties include fried green tomatoes, smoked chicken wings and what Jason calls “the famous” 1918 burger. The beef gets a flavor infusion from the house au jus and another secret ingredient, which they learned from their grandmother. (“I will not tell,” Jason says.) Once formed, the patty is seasoned with the branded 1918 seasoning salt. Cooking over a pecan wood fire completes the signature flavor.
The Browns grow their own herbs too. All ingredients they use are fresh, down to the components of spinach dip, apple and peach cobblers and sides such as collard green casserole.
Officially, Jason is the CEO and Jamal is the COO. “But in a small business you are everything,” Jamal says. “You’re the chef, you’re the dishwasher, you’re the janitor. I have to cut grass.”
The brothers’ goal over the next year is to build a multi-tiered operation that combines traditional social and business catering, curbside pickup for family meals and food trucks at multiple locations.
In May, Jamal and Jason were singled out as “hometown heroes” on ESPN radio for feeding frontline workers during the pandemic. Utilizing their parking lot as a drive-through, they served food like herb-roasted chicken and rosemary green beans to 500 people. They partnered with BHMcares to serve another 200 meals to hospital workers. They made deliveries to UAB Hospital, including Cajun chicken alfredo and 1918 burgers with house-made chips.
Targeting healthcare workers was a “natural fit,” Jamal says. He is a nurse. Jason’s wife is a nurse. Their mother is a nurse, as are several others in the extended Brown family.
The brothers also come from a line of cooks, all trained or mentored by their grandmother, Fannie Mae Brown. “Her recipes, her processes—that’s what trickled down to the generations,” Jason says. All the men in their extended family cook too. “Eat in any of our households, and a Brown man cooked it,” Jason says. “At family reunions men do all the cooking.”
Nourishing others, and the hard work that goes into it, are second nature to Jason and Jamal Brown and how they run 1918 Catering. “We’re family oriented, a couple of good guys,” Jason says. “We love cooking, love people, love being social, love having a good time.”
Jamal finishes the thought: “If you want good vibes, good energy, good food, look to 1918.”
1918 Catering is located at 197 Vulcan Road. Reach them at 205-518-5711 and learn more at 1918catering.com.
Jamal’s Favorite: Brisket
There’s something about the sizzle when fat from beef brisket hits glowing-hot coals that sparks Jamal Brown’s soul. Asked about favorite things to cook, the co-owner of 1918 Catering mentions his penchant for pork butts and ribs prepared low and slow over a pecan wood fire.
“But I love brisket most of all,” Jamal says. “Some say it’s the most difficult meat for you to grill or smoke. Once you finish it, the flavor and tenderness is indescribable.”
It’s no surprise smoked and grilled meat are the backbone of the brothers’ catering and food truck menus since it’s long been a part of their family. “My mom would buy a ton of meat and put me out there, saying, ‘Cook this,’ ‘cook that,’” Jamal says. “I know I burned up several slabs of ribs. But she never stopped going to get the meat to get me to learn how the process went.”
Today, Jamal’s brisket cooks for 12-14 hours. He trims the meat, leaving some fat to render, and injects it with 1918 Catering’s proprietary au jus. He rubs it down with a mixture of mustard and the brothers’ signature seasoning blend before grilling it five hours at 275-300 degrees. Then, he smokes the meat overnight, allows it to rest and chills it to aid slicing.
“The brisket’s nice,” Jamal says, proudly.
Pecan smoke is sweeter and “not as robust” as oak, says Jamal, and pecan trees are abundant too.
Jason’s Favorite: Salmon
Salmon is Jason’s latest cooking passion, especially since his 8-year-old son loves it. “I’ve been trying to get him to eat a lot of protein,” says Jason, who lives in the McCalla area with his wife and two children. “He’s trying to gain some muscles. So that’s one thing we eat a lot of.”
Jason pan-sears the fish in olive oil and lemon juice, adds butter and reduces the liquid a bit. He adds a sprig of fresh rosemary before finishing the fish in a hot oven. It’s always a hit, Jason says. “Serve it to him over some jasmine rice and he goes crazy.”
Jason uses a well-seasoned black cast-iron skillet because it holds heat evenly and is non-stick. In Jason and Jamal’s family of cooks, everyone uses black cast iron.
“That’s one of the basic things in our family,” Jason says. “I remember going to family reunions out in the country and my uncle frying fish in the cast iron. If you go to any Brown household and fish is being fried, it’s going to be fried in cast iron.”