Food & Drink

Honoring Southern Chefs in a Time of Uncertainty

In these dark days for the restaurant industry, the James Beard Award nominations shine a light on deserving chefs

Photo: Jacqueline Stofsick (3); Margaret Houston (bottom right)

Four of the South's James Beard Awards finalists. Clockwise from top left: Isaac Toups; Katie Button; Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman (right); Cheetie Kumar.

The thirtieth anniversary of the James Beard Awards in 2020 was supposed to be a year of celebrating the restaurant industry and its lifeblood: the legions of workers, owners, chefs, and supporters who keep it alive. Of course, the spread of the coronavirus has led to government-mandated restaurant closures—some of which have turned permanent—along with changes in business models, and widespread furloughs and layoffs, quickly darkening the year’s tone from exultant to mournful. 

Accordingly, the awards, the industry’s highest honors, given by the James Beard Foundation, were initially postponed after a semifinalist announcement on February 26. Then the March 25 announcement of the nominees—typically chosen by a group of twenty or so judges from the list of semifinalists—was canceled, and the Foundation turned its attention to supporting restaurants and workers through its Food and Beverage Industry Relief Fund. But the JBF soon realized the awards could serve as a glimmer of hope for the ailing industry, and so on Monday, May 4, a virtual nomination ceremony occurred, honoring scores of deserving chefs, bar programs, and restaurants, many of them based in the South. 

The Best Chef: South category lifted up New Orleans chefs, including Kristen Essig and Michael Stoltzfus of Coquette, Mason Hereford of Turkey and the Wolf, Michael Gulotta of Maypop, and Isaac Toups of Toups’ Meatery. In the Best Chef: Southeast category, Asheville’s Katie Button and Raleigh’s Cheetie Kumar took nominations home to North Carolina along with Tennessee’s Cassidee Dabney, of Blackberry Farm in Walland; Julia Sullivan, of Henrietta Red in Nashville; and Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman, of Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen in Memphis. For Ticer and Hudman, this year has been an especially difficult one: In January, just as they were about to open their newest restaurant, Bishop, their second spot, Hog & Hominy, burned to the ground in an overnight electrical fire. 

Ashleigh Shanti.

For new restaurants and up-and-coming chefs, a nomination can be a much-needed sign of vitality. This year, Will Aghajanian and Liz Johnson, of Nashville’s the Catbird Seat; Paola Velez, of D.C.’s Kith and Kin; and Ashleigh Shanti, of Asheville’s Benne on Eagle, are among those up for Rising Star Chef of the Year. “The nomination is incredibly humbling,” Shanti says. “It also serves as a reminder that, while we’ve got a great task at hand, this isn’t a time to despair, but instead to position ourselves as the leaders this industry needs to sustain itself.”

Adam Evans and his Automatic Seafood & Oysters in Birmingham garnered a nomination for Best New Restaurant; the popular spot was open less than a year before Evans had to shutter in-person dining due to coronavirus. “Right now, it feels like everything,” Evans says of the nomination. “For a team that’s been hustling to keep going in honor of other team members laid off, it is the reminder of times we loved, and it’s motivation to get back safely. The restaurant will be different, but we will strive to make it great again no matter what.” 

Now, a voting body composed of people from all corners of the food and beverage industry will vote for winners in each category, which will be announced at a live event in Chicago on September 25, when the honorees will hopefully be able to come together in person and the industry can start to heal. “No one has the ability to predict what the next few months will hold,” Cheetie Kumar says. “But we’re hopeful. We can do this—whatever this will be.” See the full list of nominees here