Restaurateurs and friends Reginald “Reggie” Washington and Duane Nutter opened Southern National in 2017, serving “globally inspired Southern food” in the historic Wilkins-Higgins Building in Mobile’s lively arts district.
The buzz leading up to the opening was big; the response after they opened was even bigger. After only about four months in business, the restaurant was named a semifinalist for Outstanding New Restaurant by the James Beard Foundation.
Before realizing their own dream of ownership with Southern National, the two men collaborated on One Flew South, a fine-dining restaurant in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, where they made Concourse E its own destination. They chose Mobile for Southern National in part because there was a need for fine dining in the city and because Washington’s Mobile family roots go back some 90 years.
At Southern National, 6-foot-6-inch Chef Nutter operates at his strategically placed plating station that is part of the dining room and therefore an entertaining mix of form and function. He specializes in taking what’s familiar – ingredients that have been part of the South’s food vernacular for generations – and changing them up with unfamiliar twists.
One of the restaurant’s signature dishes combines mussels with collard greens in a way that makes perfect, delicious sense.
“It seemed like a no-brainer to me,” Nutter said. “Collard greens, mustard greens and turnip greens … come natural with their own potlikker. …. Mussels make their own unique potlikker, too. I said, ‘This would be really good if I could get some of this mussel juice … mixed in with the collard greens.’ So that’s how it happened.”
He pays homage to cooks who came before him as well as to the ingredients they used – ingredients that are grown and produced at home and around the world. Turns out, there’s not that much difference between potted meat and pate. “You’ll find that different cultures are all cooking the same things,” Nutter said. “So it’s the same thing, different name. People (say), ‘This is what my grandma used to make.’ And we say, ‘Yes. We’re all one people. Just cooking the same stuff different ways.’”
The men divide back-of-the-house and front-of-the-house duties at Southern National, with Nutter creating the innovative dishes and Washington using his hospitality and operational skills to make diners feel at home. “Reggie keeps me in line,” Nutter said, “and makes sure I don’t get too chefie.”
Nutter began his culinary career in 1994 studying under chef Daryl Evans at the Four Seasons Hotel in Atlanta. He went on to work at the Ritz Carlton in Palm Beach, Florida, and the Seelbach Hilton’s Oakroom in Louisville, Kentucky – one of only 48 AAA Five-Diamond restaurants in the world. He was invited to compete on the Food Network’s “Iron Chef America,” he cooked at the James Beard House in New York and was executive chef at One Flew South for nearly a decade.
Washington honed his hospitality skills at One Flew South as well as at Atlanta’s Marriott Marquis and the Hyatt Regency. He was executive chef to former Alabama Gov. Fob James. Washington combined his passion for Southern hospitality and cuisine at the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia, where he worked as executive chef at Club Magnolia.
The James Beard nomination is humbling for both Washington and Nutter.
“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.”
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