By Donna Cornelius
Two Birmingham area chefs, a restaurant and an innovative wine shop made the list of 2022 James Beard Awards semifinalists.
Adam Evans of Automatic Seafood and Oysters in Lakeview and Timothy Hontzas of Johnny’s Restaurant in Homewood both were nominated for Best Chef: South. Johnny’s also is in the running for a Beard Outstanding Hospitality award. Golden Age Wine in Mountain Brook is a semifinalist in the Outstanding Wine Program category.
But these establishments and chefs aren’t the only ones with cause to celebrate; a city’s overall food and hospitality profile can get a real boost from James Beard Foundation recognition.
“I think it indicates the level of excellence to be found in Birmingham’s restaurants,” said Bill Stoeffhaas, co-founder of Birmingham Restaurant Week and owner of Style Advertising, the organizer of BRW. “These aren’t the first James Beard awards earned by Birmingham chefs and restaurants. There’s a culture of excellence here that you won’t find in other cities.”
Birmingham’s Christiana Roussel, a food, travel and lifestyle writer, agrees that the city has reason to rejoice over the James Beard accolades.
“The old saw goes, it’s an honor to just be nominated,” said Roussel, who’s been published in Garden & Gun, Good Grit, Sporting Classics, Food & Wine, Atlanta Homes & Lifestyles, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Birmingham Home & Garden and other well-known media outlets. “And to be fair, that is true.
“The James Beard Foundation Awards are a tacit anointing of sorts; individuals with far greater palates and dining experience have decreed restaurants in our city as worthy of mentioning. That matters. Those nominations bring revenue in the form of new customers, new visitors to our city, which is a rising tide that lifts all boats.”
The James Beard Foundation announced its 2022 Restaurant and Chef Awards semifinalists Feb. 23. The five finalists in each category will be announced March 16 in Scottsdale, Arizona. Winners will be honored at an awards ceremony June 13 in Chicago.
It’s no easy feat to earn a James Beard nomination.
“To have a concept is one thing,” said Roussel, a member of the Birmingham chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a professional organization for women leaders in food, beverage and hospitality. “To execute that concept well is another. But to consistently offer exceptional food, wine and hospitality on a regular basis, day in and day out, is worthy of recognition and honor. Places like Johnny’s in Homewood, to be nominated for their level of hospitality, demonstrates that consistency. It comes with leadership, hiring the right people, training them and demonstrating a culture you want replicated with each and every person who walks through your front door. That kind of thing does not happen overnight.”
Stoeffhaas said Birmingham’s 2022 semifinalists are good representatives of their city.
“You have a fine dining restaurant, a ‘meat and three’ and a fine wines shop receiving nominations,” he said. “The diversity you will find in Birmingham says it all.”
Automatic Seafood was a Best New Restaurant finalist in 2020, but the awards were not presented that year or in 2021 due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the restaurant industry and to give the program time to address concerns about a lack of diversity among the winners.
Hontzas was a Best Chef: South semifinalist in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Nominees in that category come from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Puerto Rico.
In the Hospitality category, Johnny’s will be up against 19 other restaurants, including Chef Katie Button’s Cúrate in Asheville, North Carolina. In another Alabama connection, Jonathan Pridgen, who grew up in Tuscaloosa, is Cúrate’s head of charcuterie.
Other Birmingham establishments have made their mark on the James Beard Awards in recent years. In 2018, Highlands Bar and Grill won the prestigious Outstanding Restaurant prize and the restaurant’s popular Dolester Miles won Outstanding Pastry Chef. Highlands’ Frank Stitt won Best Chef: Southeast in 2001.
Chris Hastings of Birmingham’s Hot and Hot Fish Club won the Best Chef: South award in 2012. The Bright Star in Bessemer was chosen as an American Classic in 2010.
In fact, Alabama has a pretty impressive James Beard track record. According to the Small Business Trends website, the state has had 11 award recipients since 2000. That ties with South Carolina, home of food-centric Charleston, and North Carolina, which has about double the population of Alabama, and it outstrips neighboring Florida and Tennessee, with nine awards each, and Mississippi with five.
The awards and foundation get their names from James Beard, dubbed the “dean of American cookery” by the New York Times. During his career, Beard wrote 20 books, had the first TV cooking show in the United States, and was longtime friends with another culinary legend: Julia Child.
The James Beard Foundation was established shortly after his death in 1986. His former home, a townhouse in New York’s West Village neighborhood, is now the foundation’s headquarters. The world’s best chefs are invited to cook more than 250 dinners a year in his tiny kitchen there.
The awards established in his honor are often called the “Oscars of the food world.” Recipients receive bronze medallions etched with his image.
The foundation also has established an educational scholarship program to support aspiring students in multiple areas of food and culinary studies.
Roussel said she’s been known to seek out James Beard-nominated restaurants when she travels.
“These awards are akin to a stamp of approval from a whole cadre of folks who know great food,” she said. “As a local, I just eat at the places I enjoy. When those restaurants are nominated for – and win – a coveted JBFA, Birmingham as a whole wins, and we all celebrate. But while awards are great, it is important to remember that food here is personal and restaurants are relationship-based. Those are what bring customers back again and again.”
Stoeffhaas said he’s been a Birmingham restaurant fanatic since he moved to the city in 1986.
“I helped launch Birmingham Restaurant Week in 2010, and it’s been an honor promoting and supporting our local restaurants and ensuring residents and visitors alike know the exceptional caliber of restaurants we have here in our city,” he said. “The word is out all over the country that Birmingham is one of the must-visit destinations for food fans across the nation.”
For a full list of the semifinalists, visit jamesbeard.org and click on the Pressroom tab.