Two newcomers joined a familiar list of Alabama chefs and restaurants on Thursday as semifinalists for the prestigious James Beard Awards.
First-time semifinalists this year are Southern National in Mobile for Outstanding New Restaurant and Birmingham’s Atomic Lounge for Outstanding Bar Program. Southern National’s Reginald “Reggie” Washington and Duane Nutter also collaborated at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport’s One Flew South, which was a Beard semifinalist in 2014 and 2015 for Outstanding Service.
“We just opened four months ago, but our plan worked,” Washington said. “All that time we put into the building of this restaurant, getting the staff and training the staff. It’s great when you see a plan come into action. We worked really hard to get this thing going. I’m just super excited for Duane and Chef Tammy (Dawson) and Will Jones, our beverage manager. You have to work hard to be the best — that’s just what you do — and that’s the only way to excel at something.”
Feizal Valli owns Atomic Lounge with his wife, Rachael Roberts. Valli made a name for himself in Birmingham as the general manager and principal bartender at the Collins Bar before setting out on his own.
“I’m pretty sure I’m dreaming but our little bar, one year old last week, in Birmingham, Alabama was just nominated for outstanding bar program by The James Beard Foundation,” Valli posted on Facebook this morning. “In a list of ten. In America.”
Birmingham’s famed Highlands Bar & Grill is a semifinalist for the coveted Outstanding Restaurant for the 10th year in a row, while Dolester Miles, Highlands’ pastry chef, is a semifinalist for the fifth straight year in the Outstanding Pastry Chef category. Highlands has moved on to become a finalist for nine straight years, while Miles has made the finalist cut the past two years.
David Bancroft of Acre in Auburn, Brill Briand of Fisher’s Upstairs in Orange Beach and Timothy Hontzas of Johnny’s Restaurant in Homewood are repeat semifinalists this year for Best Chef: South. Bancroft and Briand are semifinalists for the third year in a row.
A James Beard Award is considered the ultimate honor for culinary professionals, and being named a semifinalist can catapult them and their restaurants or bars to local fame and beyond. Winning an award can mean national fame.
“We’ll see what happens now,” Washington said. “We’ll get more business. People will read about this and hear about it and want to see what we’re all about. We’re going to stay humble and just keep on cooking. Salt and pepper.”
The awards, established by the James Beard Foundation in 1990, “recognize culinary professionals for excellence and achievement in their fields and furthers the foundation’s mission to celebrate, nurture and honor chefs and other leaders making America’s food culture more delicious, diverse and sustainable for everyone,” the foundation said today in a news release.
This year’s semifinalists were chosen from 23,000 online entries by the Beard judges, a committee of industry professionals and previous winners, according to the Beard Foundation. Nominees for the awards will be announced on March 14, with winners honored at the James Beard Foundation Awards gala on May 7 at Chicago’s Lyric Opera.
(Susan Swagler contributed to this report.)