Mississippians love flavorful cooking. The State’s traditional culinary repertoire is well-known, incorporating a broad range of soul food, barbecue, and comfort food traditions. While such fare is still widely available, visitors are increasingly drawn to the unique and inventive dishes offered by the next generation of Mississippi chefs and restauranteurs.
In 2023, three Mississippi chefs and one restaurant were recognized as semifinalists in the James Beard Awards, an annual program that has been called the “Oscars of the food world”. The final winners won’t be announced until June. But, regardless of the ultimate outcome, these three culinary visionaries and their restaurants are blazing new trails and creating new opportunities for food fanatics throughout the South.
Mississippi Chefs Recognized by James Beard Awards
Located in a renovated home in Jackson‘s Belhaven Neighborhood, Elvie’s offers an intimate, upscale vibe with an attention to detail that’s captured the attention of culinary travelers far and wide. Since opening in 2020, its rise to becoming one of Mississippi’s elite new restaurants has been nothing short of meteoric.
While the restaurant is relatively new, Elvie’s chef and owner, Hunter Evans, is no stranger to the culinary world. Evans worked as a line cook under the acclaimed Oxford, Mississippi, chef John Currence (who is also a 2009 James Beard Awards winner for “Best Chef: South”) and at a number of restaurants in New York City after completing his training at the Culinary Institute of America.
Elvie’s offers an eclectic menu that’s heavily inspired by French cuisine but with a subtle nod to Southern culinary traditions and ingredients such as fresh Gulf oysters and redfish. Evans has established close relationships with local growers and fishermen to ensure that the restaurant stays true to its “farm-to-table” ethos.
In addition to the James Beard Awards, Elvie’s was named one of “America’s Best Restaurants” by the New York Times in 2022. As seating space is limited, dinner reservations are encouraged. Daytime and outdoor seating is available on a first-come first-served basis.
Mississippi’s food tradition owes a deep debt to African cooking methods and ingredients. Black-eyed peas, okra, yams, and many other popular foods have African origins. West Africa, in particular, greatly influence the development of “soul food,” a cuisine that has transformed from its humble roots a uniquely Southern, and distinctly American, cuisine.
Now, in Mississippi, diners can experience the traditional flavors of West Africa at Sambou’s African Kitchen. The restaurant, which opened in 2022, serves up a variety of African favorites, as well as popular food selections of the greater African diaspora.
Sambou’s is owned and operated by three family members – Sally Demba, who emigrated from Gambia in 2007 and settled in Jackson, and her children Joseph Sambou, the restaurant owner, and Bibian Sambou, the head chef. Menu choices include Gambian jollof rice, oxtail soup, goat curry, and jerk chicken. While their flavors have been subdued to suit American preferences, adventurous guests can request their food prepared “the Gambian way” for a more generous dosage of heat and seasoning.
The restaurant was recognized by the James Beard Awards as one of America’s “Best New Restaurants” in their 2023 class of thirty semi-finalists.
The food traditions of Mississippi’s coastal communities are influenced by Cajun and Creole cooking, due to the proximity to New Orleans, and also the region’s abundance of fresh seafood caught in the Mississippi sound and deeper Gulf waters. But, in recent years, Mississippi’s coast has seen a boom of new restaurants offering a diverse range of cuisine. In Ocean Springs, chef Alex Perry and his wife, Kumi Omori, co-own Vestige and work together to prepare the restaurant’s ever-changing menu that emphasizes seasonal, locally-sourced ingredients. Their innovative culinary approach doesn’t fit neatly into any category; however, “contemporary American, incorporating flavors and techniques of Japanese cooking” comes close.
The experience of dining at Vestige is different, as well. The restaurant offers a tasting menu, providing diners with a wider variety of flavors – smaller plates, but more courses. Vestige is located in a small converted home, offering a unique and intimate dining experience. But, due to their limited seating, reservations are highly recommended.
Alex, a graduate of the Orlando Culinary Academy, was recognized by the James Beard Awards in 2019, as a semifinalist in the “Best Chef: South” category. In 2023, both Alex and Kumi were named together as semifinalists in the same division.
Make your dining adventure a culinary getaway by pairing your meal with a boutique hotel and nearby entertainment and cultural attractions. Discover more at VisitMississippi.org.
The Mississippi Book Festival in Jackson will feature a slew of renowned Southern authors to discuss food culture and their new cookbooks.
- by Erin Byers Murray