Surely some will argue Miami belongs in a category all its own, but the same holds true for New Orleans. While I’d never wear my boots in Miami and I’d probably opt for beer or tequila over bourbon, Miami is riddled with options for the insatiable appetite. Home to some of the country’s most acclaimed chefs, such as Norman Van Aken and Michelle Bernstein, and with ventures by other national stars such as Daniel Boulud and soon Jose Andres. The city abounds with Cuban coffee shops, Jewish delis, and beachfront after beachfront seafood emporium. The endless supply of tourists brings out a dizzying array of choices for the adventurous food seeker. This international town has something for everyone.
Long recognized as an important Southern foodie waypoint and home to another of Southern Food’s pioneers into notoriety, Frank Stitt and his Highlands Bar and Grill. Now another generation has made James Beard’s attention, Chris Dupont of Cafe Dupont was just acknowledged on the list of preliminary nominations this year for Best Chef of the South and Chris Hastings, who has just edged out four New Orleans chefs to be named 2012 winner of James Beard Chef of the South, has been operating his Hot and Hot Fish Club for 17 years. I tried to make a stop in on my last pass through Birmingham, and, no surprise, the place was packed! I had to suffice with his cookbook and make a note to call ahead next time.
Memphis has certainly joined the ranks among food towns in the South. With Gus’ world famous fried chicken and deep fried burgers at Dyer’s on Beale Street, Memphis has long done everyday grub right. When I am traveling through I ALWAYS plan my trip to allow for a stop at Las Tortugas for some home grown, hand crafted Mexican or the Germantown Commissary for smothered tamales which are the only savory thing I’ve ever had that was a sinful as a molten chocolate cake!
The recently formed Memphis Food Truck Alliance shows more than a dozen food trucks from cakes and frozen custard to tacos, barbecue and fried bologna sandwiches and a unified approach to working with the city to make it more and more food truck friendly. Memphis is much more than a barbecue town and its tight knit community of chefs has been overlooked for too long. From Felicia Willett’s Felicia Suzanne to Kelly English’s Restaurant Iris, Michael Hudman and Andrew Ticer’s Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, Ryan Trim’s Sweetgrass, and Acre by Wally Jo, the Memphis restaurant scene is alive and well! Come Labor Day, Memphis will become the annual home of the inaugural Cochon 555 event Heritage Barbecue.
Where there’s good music, there’s usually good food. My first stop in Nashville is always the Hermitage Hotel. Not just because its five star accommodations are a swank place to make camp, but also for Tyler Brown’s fantastic representation of farmstead Southern fare, with all of its requisite humility and the attention to detail you would expect from one of the South’s finest kitchens. Then there’s Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack. Go, if not for the chicken, for the story! Nashville is also home to the south’s only bean to bar artisan chocolate maker, Olive & Sinclair Chocolate, a delicious and creative product made from fair trade cocoa beans imported directly to Nashville and hand crafted into bars with fun and interesting additions such as salt and black pepper. I’ve been craving more since
my first taste!
My favorite: City House, where Tandy Wilson serves up all the things I want, just the way I want them. And he’s always got some Pappy Van Winkle behind the bar.
Louisville: The heart of bourbon country; home to Muth’s Candies, makers of the famous Modjeska, Shuckman’s smoked trout and paddlefish caviar, Bourbon Barrel Food’s barrel aged Kentucky soy sauce and the Hot Brown Sandwich. Louisville’s steady welcome and development of Farm to Table lifestyle has evolved into what the Zagat survey has called one of the best foodie getaways around the globe and Southern Living has listed as one of the South’s Tastiest Cities.
The chosen location for this year’s Slow Food National Congress, Louisville enjoys well developed farmers’ markets and the renowned Culinary School at Sullivan University, which come together to offer an abundance of fresh food and a great supply of talent and experience that meet in the kitchens of its many great restaurants from Kathy Cary’s Lilly’s Bistro to Edward Lee’s 610 Magnolia, Anthony Lamas’ Seviche, and Proof on Main headed by Michael Paley.
5. Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill
It’s hard not to put these three towns together. I’ve lived and worked in two of them, so I feel I have license to do so. Between them they may have the highest concentration of household education in the South and these people live in these beautiful places because they enjoy life; they know their food and love their wine.
North Carolina’s Research Triangle is home to two of Southern food’s most important influences: The late Bill Neal, Founder of Crook’s Corner and La Residence, and Ben and Karen Barker, the pioneer chefs behind Durham’s venerated Magnolia Grill. This is where much of Southern Food’s momentum in celebration began–one of its first foray’s onto the white table cloth. From their guidance, and through the demand of the reasonably affluent and educated population, a robust creative energy has taken form that is now being led by Ashley Christensen (Poole’s Diner, Raleigh), Andrea Reusing (Lantern, Chapel Hill) and Bill Smith (Crook’s Corner, Chapel Hill). Feeling a little more casual? Mama Dip’s Kitchen is a landmark “meat and three,” Allen and Son Barbecue defines Carolina style, and Foster’s Market and A Southern Season offer great food markets for shopping and a place to eat.
Decades ago, Atlanta was known for its infamous traffic and an after hours downtown combat zone; more likely to be on a list for urban growth and community evolution. Now in 2012, with a robust urban living scene and thriving mid town, Atlanta saw not only one chef named Best Chef Southeast, but two. One of them, Hugh Acheson (of Empire State South) justifiably implies Atlanta’s designation as the cultural and commercial capital of the South. Linton Hopkins’ limited edition burger at his gastropub, Holeman & Finch Public House, may be the most sought after bite in America, It’s certainly mine: two griddled patties with American cheese and shaved red onion on a homemade bun with homemade ball park mustard, ketchup and hand cut fries. Only 24 are served each night at 10 PM, to be sure every one is just right.
Atlanta has become a hotbed of chef-owned restaurants and a downright difficult dinner choice, even over the longest of weekends. And to kick things up a notch, the hand crafted cocktail scene is just as robust. My last visit to Atlanta left me thinking that house-made charcuterie, pickles and preserves with an impressive list of culinary cocktails and selected concoctions were requisite to join the scene. I’m hoping to get back to Anne Quatrano’s Bacchanalia and Abattoir, Linton Hopkins’ Restaurant Eugene and Kevin Rathbun’s Rathbun’s.
So good is the Houston food scene that one journalist suggested it may have become the tourist attraction that the city otherwise lacked. With a cultural foundation in regional East Texas and Gulf Coast influences while drawing upon the rich ethnic mix that might be expected of America’s 4th largest city, Houston’s food scene offers an abundance of food trucks, small cultural eateries and a cutting edge approach to establishments of all levels. With five restaurants earning the Zagat survey’s highest rating of 29 (Japanese, Vietnamese, New American, Northern Italian and a steakhouse!) and a joint specializing in sliders and wine, Houston has fully come on to the scene.
Great food is not entirely new to Houston. James Beard award winner, Robert Del Grande, predates the Food Network in shaping contemporary southwest cuisine, and the new garde includes Bryan Caswell (Reef, Stella Sola, Little Bigs), Marco Wiles (Dolce Vita) and Hugo Ortega (Hugo’s).
She-crab soup and shrimp and grits! Stewarded since the late 70‘s by Chef Louis Osteen, and later, Bob Waggoner, Charleston’s South Carolina Low Country Cuisine has long been an obvious destination for seafood. But more and more, Charleston is becoming known for heirloom produce and resurrecting long forgotten ingredients. The low country classics have settled into a foundation for the new generation, to not only celebrate that heritage, but to look deeper into regionalism beyond the seafood. Charleston, whose cuisine is often likened to a hybrid of interior southern fare and the soulful Creole repertoire of New Orleans, is one of America’s great food towns with a long roster of noteworthy Chefs and restaurants to show it.
Sean Brock of Husk and McCrady’s, Mike Lata of Fig, and Craig Deihl at Cypress are all James Beard acknowledged craftsman. And the list goes on…
1. New Orleans
Perfectly at home in a list of the world’s great cities, the Crescent City is simply the South’s greatest food destination. Home to one of our country’s original celebrity chefs, Paul Prudhomme and our country’s most celebrated chef, Emeril Lagasse and America’s first family of restaurants, the Brennan’s, at whose Commander’s Palace both Paul and Emeril made their names. New Orleans may not have the best of global cuisines, but it has a thing all its own. From Cafe Du Monde’s beignets and Sno-Bliz snowballs to its finest restaurants, New Orleans’ food scene is laced together with soul. The Louisiana bounty from which Cajun and Creole Cuisines find their way into the heart of New Orleans is fresh and abundant. What it lacks in coffee-table-book photogenic, it more than makes up for in deliberate, soulful manipulation. Don’t worry about fuss in this town that’s long forgotten financial riches; it more than makes up for it on the spiritual side.
After taking the conventional path of attaining a Psychology degree from the University of Colorado, Richardson went to New Orleans to follow his heart into the exotic world of restaurants. Declining the opportunity to attend the Culinary Institute of America; Richardson elected to embark on a traditional apprenticeship as a prep cook in world-renown chef, Emeril Lagasse’s French Quarter restaurant, NOLA.
With so many culinarians waiting in line at Emeril’s restaurants, Richardson accepted an invitation to join legendary Hotel Chef Kevin Graham (the Savoy, The Royal Orleans, the Sagamore and the Windsor Court Hotel), in an avant garde restaurant bearing his name, Graham’s. Ironically, it was during his tenure with Graham that Richardson had his first brush with another budding chef who would be his most important professional influence, John Besh.
Richardson had the opportunity to round out his veritable “Who’s Who” of New Orleans chefs with a stint at Anne Kearney’s award-winning Peristyle and another partnership with Graham before a multi-year sojourn to North Carolina. Ten years later he would finally reunite with John Besh ultimately becoming Chef d’Cuisine at Besh’s celebrated Restaurant August. It was to be Richardson’s last stop before Hurricane Katrina occasioned his apotheosis at The Capital Hotel in Little Rock, Arkansas. He recently left that position is now pursuing new opportunities.
Lee is also a contributor and all around southern culinary guru to Bourbon & Boots.