Celebrating Alabama’s 2024 James Beard semifinalists with a toast!

The list of semifinalists for the 2024 James Beard Awards, which are widely regarded as the most prestigious awards in the culinary industry, includes both newcomers and well-known names from Alabama. This includes chefs, restaurants, beverage programs, and even food journalists.

Last Wednesday, Alabama announced its nominees for the prestigious Beard Awards, which include a six-time Beard semifinalist going head-to-head with a “Top Chef” winner, a highly acclaimed chef from Mobile, and other remarkable contenders vying for the title of best chef in the South. Additionally, a talented pastry guru with a newly established bakery in Birmingham has been recognized as one of the nation’s emerging chefs. Furthermore, a bay-area restaurant has garnered praise for its exceptional wine and beverage program.

Alabama has consistently made its mark on the culinary scene since the James Beard Foundation began evaluating the nation’s food culture in 1990. Over the years, Alabama has showcased its culinary talent, with a chef, restaurant, or bar program from the state earning a spot on the semifinalist list 23 times, starting from 1996.

The state has managed to maintain a remarkable 17-year nomination streak, with the exception of the canceled 2020 awards and the 2021 awards affected by the pandemic.

Birmingham chefs who have recently won a regional best chef award include Frank Stitt of Bottega restaurant and its café, Chez Fonfon, Chris Hastings of Hot and Hot Fish Club and Ovenbird, and Adam Evans of Automatic Seafood and Oysters.

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Stitt was also a finalist for the prestigious title of the nation’s Outstanding Chef. In addition, his former dessert master, Dolester Miles, received the esteemed honor of being named the country’s Outstanding Pasty Chef in the same year that Stitt’s flagship restaurant, Highlands Bar and Grill, triumphed in the nation’s Outstanding Restaurant category.

Alabama documentarians and writers have also been honored with Beard Awards.

The finalists will be announced on April 3, and the winners in the restaurant, chef, and related categories will be revealed during a gala ceremony in Chicago on June 10.

Introducing the semifinalists for the highly anticipated 2024 James Beard Awards.

    • Rob McDaniel returns for a sixth nomination as Best Chef: South, a region that includes Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Puerto Rico. The first five nominations (2013-2017) were when McDaniel was executive chef of SpringHouse restaurant at Lake Martin. The sixth is for his work at the helm of Helen, a downtown Birmingham contemporary Southern grill and steakhouse that he and his wife, Emily, opened In 2020. McDaniel’s pedigree includes time in the kitchens of Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham and Criolla’s on Highway 30-A in Florida’s panhandle. Named for the chef’s grandmother, Helen specializes in live-fire cooking.
    • Kelsey Barnard Clark also is among the 20 semifinalists for Best Chef: South. Fans of televised cooking competitions may know her as the first woman to win “Top Chef.” That led to a cookbook, “Southern Grit.” (Her recipe for Roasted Chicken with Drippin’ Veggies is delicious.) Clark, who grew up in Dothan but has deep family connections to Mobile, graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and has worked in top restaurants including Café Bouloud in New York City. Now rooted back in southeast Alabama, she is the owner and executive chef of KBC restaurant and catering in downtown Dothan.
    • Arwen Rice, the third Alabama semifinalist for Best Chef: South, is the longtime executive chef at Red or White in Mobile. Raised in New Mexico, she started working in restaurants as a teenager, eventually winding up in Mobile. Her menu includes French-inspired fare from gourgeres bites to chicken liver mousse, charcuterie boards, and a creative fusion smoked brisket pate. Another inspired dish is the snacking board featuring roasted local vegetables. Gourmet pizzas are cooked in a wood-fired oven.
    • Chanah Willis, who started baking for customers in her home kitchen and now owns Last Call Baking in downtown Birmingham, is one of the nominees in the Emerging Chef category. A former bartender displaced by the pandemic, she first baked professionally for Urban Standard (now shuttered), and then at home. Willis’ small-batch bakery and store, open since November 2022, serves both sweet and savory goods. The name “Last Call,” by the way, hearkens to her nights – or more accurately, mornings – when she tended bar.
    • The Hope Farm The extensive wine list is strong enough to earn a Best Award of Excellence in 2023 from Wine Spectator, and its cocktail list also features a dizzying array of premium-label spirits. They are why The Hope Farm restaurant and urban farm is a 2023 Beard semifinalist for Outstanding Wine and Other Beverages Program. Open since 2020 on 1.3 acres in Fairhope, its farm grows much of what the kitchen serves.

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