Anticipation is building for chefs and food figures across Alabama as they wait to hear if they are semifinalists for a prestigious James Beard Award for culinary excellence.

There’s a better-than-average chance an Alabamian will be on the list when semifinalists are announced on January 24. People or places from the Yellowhammer State have been nominated in 22 of the last 28 years – and that includes 2021 when the awards process was canceled altogether.

As the top plaudits in the restaurant and beverage industry, Beard Awards single out the best chefs regionally and nationally, and lauds restaurants for their food quality, service, and excellence over time. Bars, wine programs, and food writing also are honored.

Finalists in the chef, restaurant, and related categories will be named on April 3. Most winners will be announced during gala ceremonies in Chicago June 8-10, culminating in the chef and restaurant awards.

Even a semifinalist nod is validation of being among the best of the best.

Considering a culinary bucket list for 2024? These chefs and establishments would be a great start.

Prior Bead Award winners from Alabama include:

  • Frank Stitt: Best Chef Southeast (2001) in his fifth year as a finalist; named to the Who’s Who of American Food and Beverage (2011); finalist or semifinalist for Outstanding Chef nationally (2008-2011). His flagship restaurant Highlands Bar and Grill (now on hiatus) was named the nation’s Outstanding Restaurant in 2018 in its 10th year as a finalist. His bistro, Chez Fonfon, was a semifinalist for Outstanding Hospitality in 2020. A third Stitt restaurant, Bottega, was a finalist for Outstanding Hospitality in 2023.
  • Chris Hastings: The co-owner of Hot and Hot Fish Club and OvenBird restaurants in Birmingham won Best Chef Southeast in 2012. He was a finalist or semifinalist from 2007-2012.
  • Adam Evans: The owner of Automatic Seafood and Oysters in Birmingham was named Best Chef South in 2022. Automatic was a semifinalist for Best New Restaurant in 2020.
  • Dolester Miles: Now retired, the head dessert guru for Stitt’s restaurant group was named Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2018. She was a finalist or semifinalist from 2014-2018.
  • Bright Star restaurant in Bessemer, which opened in 1907, was named an American Classic in 2010.

Just the list of finalists and semifinalists for prior Beard Awards is a Who’s Who of culinary figures. Nick Pihakis, co-founder of Jim N Nick’s Bar-B-Q and now head of a multifaceted restaurant group, was a semifinalist for Outstanding Restaurateur from 2010-2016.

Chefs singled out through the years for Beard nominations are Chris Dupont (Café Dupont in Birmingham), James Lewis (Bettola in Birmingham), Rob McDaniel (Helen in Birmingham), Tim Hontzas (Johnny’s Restaurant in Homewood), and David Bancroft (both Acre and Bow and Arrow in Auburn).

Others whose restaurants have since closed are Duane Nutter (Southern National in Mobile), Bill Briand (Playa and Fisher’s in Orange Beach), Chris Newsome (his now-closed restaurant, Ollie Irene, also was a nominee), and Wesley True (True and The Gulf in Mobile).

Restaurants previously named as semifinalists or finalists include Pizza Grace (Birmingham) and the now-shuttered restaurants Southern National (Mobile), and Ollie Irene (Mountain Brook).

Golden Age Wine (Birmingham) was a semifinalist for Outstanding Wine Program in 2022. Alabamians also have won in the documentary and food writing categories.

Which will be among the nominees this year? Restaurants in Huntsville and Montgomery are overdue for some Beard love. There are plenty of great chefs across the state who are worthy, too.

But my odds-on favorite to be among the semifinalists is The House of Found Objects cocktail bar in Birmingham, a visual and experiential wonderment where patrons don costumes, tables shoot bubbles and profundities, and drinks named for customers often are delivered by that person.

It’s the brainchild of Feizal Valli, the former co-owner of The Atomic Lounge in Birmingham, which was a Beard semifinalist for Best Bar Program all three years it was open. Valli’s newest venture, unveiled last year, has gained plenty of local, regional, and even national publicity.