Restaurants from across the state garner culinary award nominationsBy Alex Cohen | 03/05/2012 11:05pm
Recently, the James Beard Foundation – a culinary organization analogous to the Academy of Cinema – announced its award semifinalists. The Alabama Tourism Department already dubbed 2012 the “Year of Alabama Food.” It’s living up to the hype: Half a dozen Alabama restaurants have garnered attention from this distinguished food foundation.
The Alabama nominations spanned four categories: Best New Restaurant (Ollie Irene, Mountain Brook), Outstanding Restaurant (Highlands Bar and Grill, Birmingham), Outstanding Restaurateur (Nick Pihakis, Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q) and Best Southern Chef (Chris Hastings, Hot and Hot Fish Club; James Lewis, Bettola; Wesley True, True). Five finalists from these categories and others will be selected March 19, and the ceremony announcing the winners will take place May 7 in New York.
Chef Chris Hastings, who opened the Hot and Hot Fish Club in 1995 with his wife, Idie, has found his name on this list several times. In fact, Hastings has received an invitation to New York each of the past two years. It may be old hat, but the chef remains excited.
“This is a great celebration to be a part of,” Hastings said. “It’s a celebration of chefs, service staffs, wine experts and everyone involved in the industry.”
Chef Hastings believes Alabama chefs’ growing recognition is the product of a movement 20 years in the making. Hastings and other Alabama chefs, like Frank Stitt, have worked hard to catalyze a farm-to-table movement in the state.
“The best restaurants know how to access the best local products,” Hastings said. “This movement has landed firmly in Alabama. It doesn’t only ensure better quality, but it also celebrates this state.”
Chef James Lewis, who opened Bettola five years ago in Birmingham, is also a part of this movement. A relative newcomer, Lewis might be experiencing a different type of excitement than his more-established colleagues.
“It certainly wasn’t expected, but it’s good to be noticed for a passion I’m trying to share with others,” Lewis said.
Lewis may not always compliment his competition, but he appreciates the contributions that Hastings, Stitt and others have made to the industry. After all, Birmingham and other Alabama diners now have sharper eyes and palettes, becoming accustomed to better quality creations. Lewis is now a part of that, but he has remained innovative.
“I may have my own niche and style, but I’m still a part of Alabama food,” Lewis said. “And I’m happy about that.”
Lewis will be expanding that niche soon. In the coming months, he will open Victoria’s – a new restaurant that will feature its own butcher shop and brewery. As customers explore cuts and casks, Lewis hopes he can foster a community atmosphere alongside a full-service restaurant.
“I want people to experience every level of production,” Lewis said. “I want them to see it, taste it and be a part of it.”
Of course, college students may have a hard time getting excited about award-winning food. Oftentimes, more awards typically imply more white tablecloths, which typically imply larger numbers in the menu’s margins. Nonetheless, Hastings believes this food revolution can help those on a student’s budget.
“Restaurants like Brick & Tin and El Barrio are embracing it and doing a good job finding the fresh local ingredients,” Hastings said. “You don’t have to spend a lot of money to experience something local and fantastic.”