As anticipation builds for the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival, Mississippi chefs are preparing to showcase their culinary talents and some of their most special dishes for attendees. Chefs at the 2023 event will include Geno Lee from Big Apple Inn in Jackson, Michael Carr from Barbeque Shine in Ridgeland, Katie Dixon from Birdhouse Cafe in Hattiesburg, Cooper Miller from Forklift in Tupelo, and David Crabtree from the Island View Casino Resort in Gulfport.
This year’s chefs represent a broad spectrum of styles and influences, showcasing diverse flavors from across Mississippi. During the four-day festival, attendees will have a chance to sample a taste of Mississippi. For the other 361 days of the year, visitors can experience the full-on immersive culinary experience (a.k.a. breakfast, lunch and dinner) at excellent restaurants throughout the state, offering everything from down-home soul food to upscale multi-course dinners.
From Jackson, a Soulful Taste of History
The centrally located capital city of Jackson is, very often, a starting point for visitors exploring Mississippi. It’s where you’ll find the Mississippi’s acclaimed Civil Rights Museum and many of the state’s largest and best cultural attractions.
It’s also where you’ll find one of the state’s most historic eateries. Big Apple Inn traces its roots back to 1939, when Mexican immigrant Juan Mora sold tamales out of a cart on Jackson’s historic Farish Street, a location which was at the time a bustling center of Black commerce and culture. Eventually, Mora would open his own restaurant, Big Apple Inn, on the same street.
Today, the restaurant is owned and operated by Juan’s great-grandson, Geno Lee, who carries on the family tradition. Lee serves up delicious and affordable tamales, spicy ground-pork sausage sandwiches called “red hots,” and, most famously, tenderized and seasoned pig-ear sandwiches. While the restaurant is known for its humble menu, Big Apple Inn has a historical importance. The restaurant was a frequent meeting spot for central figures in the American civil rights movement and, in more recent years, attracted celebrity visits from celebrities including B.B. King, the Travel Channel’s Andrew Zimmern, and Barack Obama.
From Ridgeland, Mouthwatering Smoked Meats
Ridgeland, located just north of Jackson, is a vibrant hub for dining, shopping, and outdoor recreation on the Natchez Trace and Ross Barnett Reservoir. In addition to the city’s many locally owned fine-dining and quick service restaurants, a growing number of food trucks are now on the scene, including one that has become a local barbecue favorite in just a short time.
Michael Carr fulfilled his dream of opening a barbecue food truck and catering business in 2017, following 17 years of employment at a Canton, Mississippi, automotive plant. Carr used his employee discount to purchase his first food truck and, soon after, opened Barbeque Shine, drawing on a nickname given to him by his children. He soon began appearing at local events in Ridgeland and food truck pop-ups around the state. Then, in 2021, he opened a new storefront for takeout and, later that year, expanded Barbeque Shine’s event and catering capabilities by adding a massive 25-foot long custom smoker that can hold up to 100 slabs of ribs.
Barbeque Shine’s slogan, “Mississippi Flavor with a Texas Kick,” reflects the slow, mesquite-fired barbecue traditions of Texas, where Carr has family ties, combined with meats and seasonings more commonly found throughout Mississippi. It’s a match made in barbecue heaven.
From Tupelo, A New King of Fine Dining
Tupelo is known around the world as the birthplace of the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Elvis Presley. Today, at the city’s more than 160 restaurants, you’ll find meals fit for a king – even if they’re not serving Presley’s favorite fried peanut butter and banana sandwich.
Since opening in 2016, Forklift Restaurant has become one of the city’s favorite spots for enjoying elevated Southern fare and imaginative signature cocktails. The restaurant’s executive chef and owner Cooper Miller combines his Mississippi roots with skills gained while attending Le Cordon Bleu in Atlanta and later while working alongside some of the best chefs in the Southeast.
In 2022, Cooper joined Tupelo’s royals when he was named the “King of Mississippi Seafood,” a title which earned him entrance into the Great American Seafood Cook-Off, held annually in New Orleans. He will be making his second appearance as a Mississippi chef at the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival this year.
From Hattiesburg, Nourishing Noshes
Hattiesburg earned its reputation as Mississippi’s “Hub City” thanks to its location at the intersection of key highways and rail lines. In more recent years, Hattiesburg has become a popular stopping point for travelers thanks to its status as the home of the University of Southern Mississippi and also its growing creative economy, exemplified by the city’s ever-growing collection of murals and public arts installations.
Hattiesburg’s Katie Dixon is not only a chef, but also a nutrition expert and certified personal trainer. So it comes as no surprise that Dixon’s restaurant, Birdhouse Cafe, emphasizes healthy, nutrient-rich and, of course, flavorful combinations of ingredients. Defying the expected conventions of Deep South dining, she’s expanded her business to include two other similarly themed restaurants in Destin, Florida, and Slidell, Louisiana. In addition to her restaurant business, Dixon is the author of a cookbook called Be Nourished and was a finalist in two Food Network competitions, Master Chef and Food Network Star. This year’s event marks her second appearance representing Mississippi chefs at the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival.
From Coastal Mississippi, Gulf Coast Greatness
Growing up as a young boy in South Mississippi, David Crabtree developed a passion for cooking that led him to a 45-year career in the food industry. Crabtree honed his craft with apprenticeships at two New Orleans Institutions, Commander’s Palace under Emeril Lagasse and Mr. B’s Bistro under Gerard Maras.
Since 2006, Crabtree has served as executive chef at Island View Casino Resort in Gulfport, where he is responsible for overseeing more than 100 back-of the house culinary professionals for the property’s fine dining, casual, buffet and specialty restaurants. Over the course of his career, Crabtree has earned more than 60 awards from culinary competitions throughout the Southeast and has earned a top-ten ranking five times in the World Food Championship’s seafood category.
Leading the culinary workforce at one of Mississippi’s top casino destinations offers Crabtree an opportunity to share the flavors of Coastal Mississippi with visitors from around the world, while inspiring the next generation of Mississippi chefs toward culinary greatness.
- by Erin Byers Murray
- by Amber Chase