A good year for Georgia at Beard Awards

Food & More by John Kessler

For the past few years, my reports from the annual James Beard Awards in New York City have had to contain some variation on the line, "It wasn't a good year for Georgia."

Not this year, which turned out to be slap-your-mama terrific for our Georgian contenders.

After five years of facing off against each other for the title of Best Chef, Southeast, chefs Linton Hopkins and Hugh Acheson shared the title in a tie announced at a Lincoln Center gala on Monday night -- an extremely rare occurrence at these annual awards, the top national honor for American chefs.

Hopkins claims he predicted this unlikely outcome. "I called I'll Have Another in the [Kentucky] Derby, and I woke up the other day and said it's going to be a tie."

Acheson, who won for his cooking at Five & Ten in Athens, had earned another Beard award three days earlier at the Book, Broadcast and Journalism banquet in the American Cooking category for his cookbook, "A New Turn in the South: Southern Flavors Reinvented for Your Kitchen" (Clarkson Potter). This award caps off a tremendous year for Acheson, a Canadian who followed his wife south as she pursued graduate studies at the University of Georgia. This cookbook has been a popular and critical success for its inspired take on home cooking from the modern Southern pantry, and for its fresh design, which captures that inimitable country cool of Athens.

After a run as a contestant on the TV show "Top Chef Masters," the telegenic Acheson joined the panel of judges on "Top Chef," where his sharp-tongued sense of humor and spontaneity have enlivened the stagy competition program. His first Atlanta venture, Empire State South, has become in less than two years one of the defining restaurants in the city.

Hopkins, while less familiar to a national audience, has nonetheless established himself as a regional leader. As a past president of the Southern Foodways Alliance, he has helped direct the robust dialogue on Southern cooking, as chefs and culinary historians reexamine its traditions as they look for new directions. Over the years, he has rethought and reformulated the focus of Atlanta's Restaurant Eugene, which opened with the spirit of a plush destination restaurant but has become something more of a laboratory for Southern culinary culture, with an oft-changing experimental menu.

An Atlanta native and Emory University graduate, Hopkins has developed relationships with farmers, ranchers and food artisans throughout the Southeast. He has introduced many diners to the lost flavors of their heritage, from heirloom grits to sorghum syrup. A bookish chef, he proudly prepares recipes from historical and modern Southern cookbooks, inviting visiting writers and paying guests to a series of well-attended author dinners.

These awards honored other Southerners as well. Chris Hastings of Hot & Hot Fish Club in Birmingham bested four New Orleanians for Best Chef, South. Gifted writer and Bubba-at-large John T. Edge snagged one of the top journalism awards for his comprehensive article, "BBQ Nation," which appeared in the magazine Saveur.

These four talented food personalities are helping to show the rest of the country that not only does Southern cuisine offer a fascinating cultural narrative, but the food's pretty great, as well.

Other awards highlights

Outstanding Chef: Daniel Humm of New York's Eleven Madison Park. Since he has taken over the kitchen at this Flatiron District restaurant, it has become one of the city's most talked about gourmet destination. The Swiss-born Humm helped popularize menus that offer little description but lots of delightful surprise.

Rising Star Chef: Christina Tosi of Momofuku Milk Bar, also in New York City. This award, the top honor for a young chef at the beginning of his or her career, typically does not go to pastry chefs. Tosi runs the little dessert spot that popularized trends like using crushed pretzels and salty snack items in cookies and capturing childhood flavors, such as cereal milk, in ice cream. Her Crack Pie (a wickedly dense kind of brown sugar chess pie) has become an iconic dish.

Best New Restaurant: Next, the Chicago restaurant from Grant Achatz and the team at modernist cuisine temple, Alinea. The restaurant cooks themed menus that change periodically. Reservations are available only through an online lottery, and meals are paid at that time.

Publication of the Year: Another tie, this time for "Gastronomica," an interdisciplinary quarterly academic journal of food and culture, and Food 52, a cooking website (food52.com) that fosters a strong online community. (Editor's note: John Kessler is a member of the Beard Journalism Award Committee.)

Cookbook of the Year: "Modernist Cuisine" (The Cooking Lab), a multi-volume grand opus by former Microsoft honcho Nathan Myhrvold with Chris Young and Maxime Bilet, which examines in exhaustive detail the advances that science has made to cooking in recent years.

TV Program (on location): "Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern," the Travel Channel show in which the host eats any revolting thing a street vendor waves under his face.

TV Program (studio): "Chopped," a Food Network program in which competing chefs must cook using the often strange ingredients in a mystery basket.

Media Personality/Host: Ted Allen, the wry host of "Chopped."

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