Newcomers join some familiar names on the list of Alabama-based semifinalists for the 2024 James Beard Awards, considered the nation’s most prestigious accolades for chefs, restaurants, beverage programs, and even food journalists.
Announced January 24, the Alabama nominees include a six-time Beard semifinalist facing off with a “Top Chef” winner, a lauded chef from Mobile, and others for best chef in the South. A pastry guru with a new bakery in Birmingham is singled out among the nation’s emerging chefs. A bay-area restaurant is praised for its wine and beverage program.
Alabama has been a nearly constant presence since the New York-based James Beard Foundation started rating the nation’s culinary scene in 1990. In a stretch starting in 1996, at least one Alabama chef, restaurant, or bar program has made the semifinalist list 23 times. Currently, the state is riding a 17-year nomination streak. (The 2020 awards were canceled after finalists were announced and altogether in 2021 due to the pandemic.)
Birmingham chefs winning a regional best chef award are Frank Stitt (Bottega restaurant and its café, Chez Fonfon), Chris Hastings (Hot and Hot Fish Club, Ovenbird), and Adam Evans (Automatic Seafood and Oysters).
Stitt also has been a finalist for the nation’s Outstanding Chef. His now-retired dessert master, Dolester Miles, was named the country’s Outstanding Pasty Chef award the same year Stitt’s flagship, Highlands Bar and Grill, won the nation’s Outstanding Restaurant category.
Alabama documentarians and writers also have won Beard Awards.
Finalists will be named on April 3, and the winners in the restaurant, chef, and related categories will be announced during a June 10 gala ceremony in Chicago.
Meet the semifinalists in the 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.