Mixing It Up: Culinary Masters From Memphis to New Orleans
The South is known for its food – whether it’s simple, traditional dishes or spicy nouveau cuisine that combines Southern flair with international flavors. DeSoto Magazine has had its editorial eye on these four Southern chefs for a while now. Their names are becoming known throughout the South and beyond because of their culinary expertise and creative menus.
Restaurant Iris, Second Line, and Magnolia House at Harrah’s on the Gulf Coast
Sometimes people find their calling in life in the least expected ways. Kelly English was studying pre-law at the University of Mississippi and working as a cook in local restaurants to pay his way through college. That experience was enough to convince him to pursue studies at the legendary Culinary Institute of America following his graduation from Ole Miss in 2002. After finishing at the CIA in 2004, he returned home to his native New Orleans where he worked and trained under Chef John Besh. While managing Besh’s restaurant in Tunica, Mississippi, English fell in love with Memphis.
In 2007, English opened his first Memphis eatery – Restaurant Iris in the historic Overton Square of Midtown. Restaurant Iris specializes in French-Creole cuisine featuring local and seasonal ingredients and the restaurant has received numerous accolades from around the South. Only two years after the restaurant opened, Food & Wine magazine named English as its “Best New Chef” in 2009. He has since opened two more restaurants: The Second Line, also in Midtown Memphis, and the Magnolia House at Harrah’s on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The Second Line features authentic New Orleans favorites including po’boys, seafood plates, roasted meats, and unique cocktails in a casual atmosphere. The Magnolia House was recently named “Best Romantic Restaurant” on the Gulf Coast by Casino Player Magazine.
English, who has been featured in numerous food magazines and in the Wild Abundance cookbook, is known for his endless creativity and passion for food. At the same time, he says, “I want people to have fun when they eat out.”
Tucked in a strip center a few miles away from Oxford Square, Snackbar doesn’t look like the kind of restaurant that would be the domain of a four-time nominee and two-time finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef designation or for the People’s Best New Chef nominee from Food & Wine magazine in 2011. But Vishwesh Bhatt is right at home in the restaurant that has been recognized by national media as one of the best in the South.
The long, sleek 40-seat table running through the center of Snackbar adds to the ambiance that has been described as a French bistro meeting up with a north Mississippi café.Pop one of Bhatt’s Fried Boudin Balls or Broccoli Fritters into your mouth, and you’ll understand the “snacks” are anything but ordinary.
A native of Gujarat, India, Bhatt studied biology at the University of Kentucky and later political science at the University of Mississippi. He also has a culinary arts degree from Miami’s Johnson and Wales University. While his academic background is diverse, his true passion lies in his cooking and creating new dishes with lots of spices. He also finds inspiration by working with younger chefs.
“I am 51 years old, and they make me younger,” he said with a grin. “I see the ways they use spices that I grew up with. It’s definitely been an evolution.”
The gregarious Bhatt once told National Public Radio that when he came to Mississippi he did not want to be “the cliché Indian guy in a Southern town cooking Indian food.” As the popularity of Snackbar grew, he added a dash of India into his cooking but he infuses other distinct cultures into his dishes as well – including Southern.
Since opening Snackbar in 2009, Bhatt has become the corporate chef for the entire City Grocery Restaurant Group. One of Oxford’s biggest cheerleaders, Bhatt said, “We definitely have something special going on here.”
The Manship Wood Fired Kitchen
and Aplos Restaurant
Jackson native Alex Eaton first learned to cook in an unlikely place: over the open fires at Boy Scout camps. It’s not surprising, then, that his Eagle Scout skills would eventually lead him to open a restaurant where wood-fired pizzas, seared meats, and spit-fire chicken dominate a menu that is inspired by Mediterranean flavors and Southern soul.
“Something about fire in general warms your soul and makes food and friendships better, especially when sitting around a fire,” Eaton said. “Food just completely tastes different over a wood-fire.”
After earning a business degree from Mississippi State University in 2007, Eaton studied culinary arts at Johnson and Wales University in Charlotte, North Carolina. He finished in 2009 as a Magna Cum Laude graduate and headed to New Orleans, where he perfected his skills with chefs John Besh of Domenica and Michelle McRaney of Mr. B.’s Bistro.
He always wanted to return home to Jackson, and in 2011 he joined restaurateurs Al Roberts and Bill Latham to help open Table 100 in Flowood. By 2014, he was ready to establish his own restaurant, The Manship Wood Fired Kitchen, with business partner Steven O’Neill in the Belhaven section of Jackson.
A year later, the Jackson Free Press voted him Best New Chef in Jackson, and in 2016 he earned the King of American Seafood title at the Great American Seafood Cook-Off, sponsored by the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. Prior to competing in the national cook-off, Eaton had already won the Seafood King title in Mississippi.
Eaton, who is half Lebanese, will open Aplos Restaurant in Jackson’s Highland Village in late spring. The fast-fine dining concept will be a fusion of Greek, Lebanese and Italian influences. Very proud of his heritage, Eaton went to Lebanon last summer to study the culinary traditions in time to open Aplos.
New Orleans, Louisiana
Herbsaint Bar & Restaurant
Most first-time nominees do not win a James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef award on the initial go-around, and rarely are they women. Rebecca Wilcomb, however, defied those odds when she won the coveted Best Chef in the South award last year for her work at Herbsaint, a New Orleans restaurant on St. Charles Avenue in the Warehouse District.
Shortly after winning, Wilcomb told reporters that the award was especially meaningful because it was given by peers in the industry. “For your peers to say, ‘I see you, I like what you’re doing … good job,’ that means everything to me,” she said at the time.
Formerly from Massachusetts, Wilcomb was inspired by her mother’s Italian roots. The family traveled to northern Italy frequently where she enjoyed the rustic dishes prepared by her grandmother.
Wilcomb moved to New Orleans in 2008, hoping to land a position at Chef Donald Link’s Cochon restaurant. However, she made a quick stop at Herbsaint – also owned by Link – to drop off her resumé. Link happened to be there and hired her immediately as a line cook at Herbsaint, which she describes as a Southern French bistro with Italian and Spanish influences. Link himself is a former winner of the Best Chef in the South award in 2007. In her Beard Award acceptance speech, Wilcomb called him “the best friend and mentor anyone could ask for.”
In 2011, she was promoted to chef de cuisine, where she has maintained high standards as well as the New Orleans Times-Picayune‘s Top 10 Restaurant designation every year during her tenure.
Wilcomb is an active member of the Oxford-based Southern Foodways Alliance.