By Michelle Farnham
July 14, 2023
SOUTH WALTON – The James Beard Foundation has been awarding the culinary industry’s best of the best since 1990. James Beard, host of the first-ever television cooking program “I Love to Eat,” was a prolific recipe-writer and author, and considered to be the father of the modern era of “celebrity chefs.”
Often referred to as “the Oscars of the food world,” Beard’s namesake prize has honored the likes of Wolfgang Puck, Mario Batali, Jose Andrés, and Bobby Flay, to name a few. Although many of the prizes go to innovators in the big cities like Chicago and New York, the emerging culinary mecca of South Walton certainly has drawn the foundation’s attention.
Media and retail giant Emeril Lagasse, whose empire includes Emeril’s Coastal in Grand Boulevard, has racked up 19 nominations over his career, including wins for Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America (1989), Best Chefs in America (1991), and Humanitarian of the Year (2013).
“Every day we do our best to improve and learn from each other and others in our industry and it’s always an honor to be recognized for what my team and I work so hard to achieve,” Lagasse said.
It’s not uncommon to see Emeril behind the line at the Sandestin destination – his newest spot – as he calls Miramar Beach home while traveling between his other restaurants Emeril’s and Meril in New Orleans and Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House and Delmonico Steakhouse in Las Vegas.
Lagasse’s philanthropic endeavors are well known, as The Emeril Lagasse Foundation has raised millions for various children’s charities since 2002, and he was a major benefactor of the local Seaside Neighborhood School, where his two youngest children attended.
Famed Canadian-turned-Southerner Chef Hugh Acheson, who brought his talents crafting the menu to Ovide in Sandestin’s Hotel Effie in early 2021, has garnered himself 14 nominations, including wins for Best Chef: Southeast (2012) and American Cooking – Book (2012) for “A New Turn in the South: Southern Flavors Reinvented for Your Kitchen.” Acheson’s resume also includes time spent as a judge on the reality cooking TV show “Top Chef” and as an Iron Chef on “Iron Chef Canada.”
Acheson hosts the occasional dinner at the sleek Sandestin restaurant, including a five-course menu with wine pairings, and a book-signing and champagne reception last summer.
Acheson also owns Five & Ten, opened in Athens, Ga., in 2000, and Empire State South in Atlanta, opened in 2010.
Fellow Southern Chef and cookbook author John Currence has won favor with the foundation half a dozen times, including Best Chef: South (2009) for his Oxford, Miss., restaurant City Grocery. He set up shop on the Emerald Coast in 2017 with Florida’s first Big Bad Breakfast in Inlet Beach. Following the success of the brunch house, Currence adding a second location in Miramar Beach, located in front of the Silver Sands Premium Outlet complex.
He has a collection of dining spots in Oxford, including City Grocery, Bourè, Snackbar, and the flagship Big Bad Breakfast, which has also expanded into Alabama, Tennessee, and South Carolina.
You might have seen Currence on any number of cooking shows like Top Chef Masters, Bizzarre Foods, and No Reservations: Parts Unknown.
Not to be overlooked
The foundation does not overlook bakers, either. Chef Deb Swenerton earned herself a nomination for Outstanding Baker in 2019 during her tenure with Black Bear Bread Co.
“I never thought anything like that would happen,” Swenerton said after learning of the nomination.
Swenerton’s breads and pastries helped the local bakery grow since its founding in 2016, now boasting a trio of locations in Grayton Beach, Seaside and Grand Boulevard.
Local restaurateur Chef Jim Shirley has been honored to cook at the prestigious James Beard House in Manhattan, a center for the culinary arts maintained by the JBF. The owner of local eateries Great Southern Café, The Bay, Farm & Fire, North Beach Social, The Chicken Shack, C-Bar, b.f.f. and The Meltdown on 30A, has graced the legendary kitchen half a dozen times, bringing his signature Southern dish Grits a Ya Ya to the Big Apple.
That’s a lot of award-winning talent for one town; go out and taste it all!