By Susan Marquez
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2023 issue of eat. drink. MISSISSIPPI.
There’s something very posh sounding about saying you are dining at a James Beard Award-winning restaurant, or that your meal was prepared by a James Beard Award-winning chef.
But do you really know what a James Beard Award is?
Let’s start with James Beard himself. Born in 1903 in Portland, Oregon, James Beard was a cookbook author and chef who celebrated American cuisine and encouraged the use of fresh, seasonal ingredients.
The New York Times bestowed the title “dean of American Cookery” to Beard in 1954. He wrote twenty cookbooks between 1940 and 1983, many of which are still in print today. Recipes include regional favorites to international cuisine. Beard introduced Americans to new foods and techniques, not just through his cookbook, but through television cooking shows and at The James Beard Cooking School in New York City and Seaside, Oregon. From chefs in fine restaurants to home food enthusiasts, generations were trained and inspired by Beard’s passion for good food.
Through the annual James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards, James Beard is remembered and honored. The Awards are administered by the James Beard Foundation, a nonprofit organization established 30 years ago. The mission, according to the organization’s website, “is to celebrate, support, and elevate the people behind America’s food culture and champion a standard of good food anchored in talent, equity, and sustainability.”
The road to winning a coveted James Beard Award begins with the nomination process. Anyone can nominate a chef or restaurant through an online form on the James Beard Foundation’s website, and each year there are hundreds of entrants. The Foundation’s Restaurant and Chef Award committee and a large panel of judges works to narrow the list down to semifinalists. That list is then narrowed down to nominees, and finally, winners, all overseen by James Beard volunteers.
This year, Mississippi is proud to have two semifinalists, both located in Jackson.
The first is Hunter Evans of Elvie’s, a semifinalist for Best Chef, South, which includes the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Puerto Rico.
As a hospitality management major at University of Mississippi, Hunter discovered his love for cooking under the helm of acclaimed James Beard award winning chef John Currence, who won the award in 2009 as chef of City Grocery in Oxford. Evans continued his training at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. A Jackson native with strong New Orleans ties, he named his restaurant, Elvie’s, after his grandmother. The food served in the restaurant is inspired by the time spent in his grandmother’s New Orleans kitchen and his travels through Europe. The restaurant’s website describes the menu as “a modern take on classic French cuisine through the lens of Southern culinary traditions and ingredients.”
In the Best New Restaurant category, Joseph Sambou’s restaurant, Sambou’s African Kitchen, is one you may not have discovered yet. The restaurant on County Line Road in Jackson was opened in March 2022 by Joseph Sambou, who immigrated to the United States with his family in 2007. His sister, Bibian, is the chef. Sambou’s African kitchen serves dishes from the family’s native Gambia, as well as dishes from Ethiopia and other African countries.
Sambou’s dishes are heavily spiced but can be toned down if requested. Everything is made from scratch daily. Meat is marinated in lemon juice and cooked slow to draw out the flavors. While the restaurant is their business, it is also an opportunity for the family to share African culture with Mississippians.
The awards nominees were announced on March 29, and the winners will be announced at a gala awards ceremony on June 5 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Find out more at JamesBeard.org.