Food & Drink

The South Shines Bright at “the Oscars of Food”

Southern chefs took top honors at the James Beard Awards

photo: Brennan Wesley; WILLIAM HEREFORD; MELANIE ACEVEDO

From left: Rodney Scott; Frank Stitt; Nina Compton.

Phones began lighting up in Birmingham, Alabama, around 10 p.m. Monday night. Finally! So damn proudWe’ve known it all along!

After nine consecutive nominations, Frank and Pardis Stitt’s Highlands Bar & Grill won the James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Restaurant at the organization’s annual awards ceremony in Chicago. Throughout the nearly decade-long drought, Stitt was typically understated and gracious—two of the qualities that are beautifully reflected in Highlands, which opened in 1982 and introduced the world to grits soufflé. But last night, he let loose a little—sharing jubilant hugs and high-fives before taking the stage to turn the spotlight…back on the restaurant’s patrons. “One of the reasons we’re all here,” he said, “is that we’ve been caught up by the magic in trying to create a little bit of beauty in one’s work, and hopefully in our guests’ day.”

photo: Huge Galdones

Frank and Pardis Stitt (center) and the staff of Highlands Bar & Grill, winner of Outstanding Restaurant.

A few minutes before accepting their award, the couple watched as Highlands’s Dolester Miles was named Outstanding Pastry Chef, following two back-to-back nominations. Miles, who learned to bake from her mother, joined Stitt at the outset, first in the kitchen at Highlands, then expanded into pastry for all four Stitt restaurants. Her immaculate lemon meringue tarts and coconut pecan cake, arrayed on a table just inside the front door, are the first things diners see when walking into the sunny Five Points spot—and the last bites they savor.

photo: Cary Norton

Dolester Miles, winner of Outstanding Pastry Chef, holding one of her famous coconut cakes.

“When Dol Miles won for best pastry, that was the indicator,” says Southern Foodways Alliance director and G&G contributing editor John T. Edge, who attended the awards. “I turned to my wife, Blair, and said, ‘This is gonna be a really good night.’”

And so it was. Miles is one of three African Americans—all Southerners—who earned top honors at what is called “the Oscars of food.” Last night’s James Beard Awards reflected a deepening understanding of the influence African Americans exert not just on Southern food but on the entire nation’s culinary traditions. “It felt like the awards both grew up and realized their potential—to recognize truly what American food is and who is responsible for excellence in American cookery,” Edge says. “This is the way it should be. This is the way it always should have been.”

Charleston, South Carolina, pit master Rodney Scott brought home Best Chef: Southeast, the first African American to win the award. His friendly and unpretentious restaurant—there’s a drive-thru window and a smoke-filled pit room hung with whole hogs out back—occupies a corner in Charleston’s North Central neighborhood far from the pastel mansions and high-priced dining options that lure tourists to the city. (“He got a spontaneous eruption, not just a standing ovation,” Edge says.) Nina Compton, whose Compère Lapin has essentially become New Orleans’ new Caribbean Room, was named Best Chef: South. “I never dreamed coming from a very, very small island of St. Lucia that I would be here today,” she said after accepting her medal.

Even outside our geographical boundaries, Southern food reigned supreme. Edouardo Jordan, who grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida, took two medals for his Seattle endeavors: Best Chef: Northwest for his first restaurant, Salare; and Best New Restaurant for JuneBaby, a passionate exploration of African-American food he opened last year in the city’s Ravenna neighborhood. Perhaps it’s a novelty in Seattle, but JuneBaby’s menu (as well as the restaurant’s frequently updated encyclopedia) feels familiar to anyone who’s ever frequented a Southern meat-and-three or soul-food establishment: fried catfish, oxtails, candied yams, black-eyed peas, even chitterlings.

photo: Huge Galdones

Edouardo Jordan (center) with the staff of JuneBaby, winner of Best New Restaurant, celebrate after the James Beard Awards.

The Southern love continued all night long—Charleston’s FIG took home Outstanding Wine Program, while Cure maintained New Orleans’s run as home to Outstanding Bar Program (Arnaud’s French 75 Bar won last year). The Crescent City’s Dong Phuong Bakery was named an American Classic. And Washington, D.C., earned two nods: Jeremiah Langhorne of the Dabney for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic, and José Andrés, who was named Humanitarian of the Year for his heartfelt work feeding hundreds of thousands in hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico.

Though the award festivities may be winding down, there is one great way to keep the celebration of Southern food going—start booking reservations.