One fall afternoon in the late ’90s, a young Alex Perry sat at his desk deeply engrossed in a lesson on microbiology and botany as part of an advanced-placement biology class at Ocean Springs High School. Perry’s teacher, Renee Hill, saw his interest in the subject and approached him after the lesson’s end with a book in hand titled “The Hot Zone.”
Flipping through the book’s pages, Perry found detailed descriptions and illustrations surrounding the origins and effects of pandemic diseases, including the ebola epidemic in South Africa in the early 1990s. Equal parts fascinated and disturbed at the idea of pathogens that operate on a microscopic scale causing devastating and far-reaching effects, Perry decided he wanted to pursue a career in epidemiology.
Unfortunately for Perry, after he began studying upper-level biology at the University of South Alabama, he soon came to regard the subject matter as “boring as dirt” but still persisted, receiving a bachelor’s degree in biology in 2004.
“As with any career, you have to put in your dues and work your way up the totem pole,” Perry says. “For me, though, I just couldn’t see myself making it through the more menial aspects of working in a microbiology lab to put those dues in.”
Perry’s fortunes turned around one night a few months later when he happened to catch an episode of the Japanese cooking show “Iron Chef” on television, which put the idea into his mind to change tracks and learn to cook. A friend of Perry’s named Joy Lindon, who grew up in a Filipino household where large family meals were the norm, encouraged Perry to follow his new goal.
Another friend who had recently taken a job in Orlando, Fla., offered to let Perry room with him if he went to culinary school in the city, leading Perry to enroll at the Orlando Culinary Academy, an affiliate of Cordon Bleu. Perry received an associate degree in applied culinary arts from the academy in 2005.
Today, Perry manages his own restaurant called Vestige in Ocean Springs, Miss., together with his wife, Kumi Omori. Ten years after going into business together in 2013, the two are now nominees in the “Best Chef: South” category for the 2023 James Beard Awards.
Fellow Mississippians Hunter Evans of Elvie’s restaurant and Joseph Sambou of Sambou’s African Kitchen, both located in Jackson, Miss., also made the semifinals for “Best Chef: South” and “Best New Restaurant,” respectively.
The James Beard Foundation, a New York City-based nonprofit that supports American food culture, presents the awards each June at the Lyric Opera in Chicago, Ill. New York chef Peter Kump founded the organization in 1986 and named it in honor of his teacher, the late James Beard, a cookbook author and food writer who himself founded the Institute of Culinary Education in NYC.
Among the awards the foundation presents each year are 12 Best Chef nominations for different regions around the United States, as well as a Leadership Award, a Humanitarian of the Year Award and a Lifetime Achievement Award. Other categories include Outstanding Chef, Outstanding Restaurant, Best New Restaurant, Outstanding Restaurateur, Emerging Chef, Outstanding Bakery, Outstanding Pastry Chef or Baker, Outstanding Hospitality, Outstanding Wine and Other Beverages Program, and Outstanding Bar.
Vestige: ‘Cooking Organically’
Alex Perry met Kumi Omori shortly after moving to Mobile, Ala., on a friend’s recommendation after graduating from the Orlando Culinary Academy. Perry worked as chef de cuisine at a restaurant called Noja in Mobile while Omori pursued a degree in graphic design at the University of South Alabama.
Perry soon learned that Omori had gone through a similar experience to his own regarding academics and food. Born in a small mountain village in Japan’s Iwate prefecture, Omori had studied English in high school under an instructor from Washington state. This teacher received regular care packages of American foods from family in the United States that he would then share with his students. Getting a glimpse of what to her were exotic foods ignited an interest in getting a closer look at a different culture, which led Omori to apply for a transfer-student program after graduating from high school.
Omori enrolled at the University of Southern Alabama with the intent of pursuing a medical degree and eventually transferring to the University of Alabama at Birmingham. However, a year into her studies she decided to switch to graphic design. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from UoSA in 2007. After graduating, she worked with Perry at Noja until the couple decided to open a restaurant of their own, where she now manages the graphic-design elements for the restaurant’s website, logo and menus.
“The owner at Noja, Chakli Diggs, had his own ideas about how the food should be prepared and how it should look, and we were starting to develop what you might call stylistic differences,” Perry says. “Kumi and I had our own ideas for how we wanted to cook and decided it was time for a change.”
“What we wanted to pursue was not to cook restaurant food that fell into a particular concept, like a steakhouse or barbecue joint or noodle house,” Perry continues. “We didn’t want to limit ourselves to any one thing and instead had a vision of cooking organically. I don’t mean organically in the sense of organic vegetables, but instead in having the ingredients that we have at any given time determine the process we follow in our cooking.”
Vestige offers what Perry describes as a “tasting menu,” which features five preset courses that change on a daily basis. Perry and Omori also vary the types of food they prepare seasonally based on what ingredients are available at their local farmer’s market. The two also like to incorporate locally sourced wild ingredients such as elderflower, smilax, sorrel, magnolia flowers and leaves, and wild berries.
“We take our food seriously but try not to take ourselves too seriously,” Perry says. “Our goal is to create positive memories for our customers with our cooking, not from any one specific thing we cook but in the experience we create for them.”
Vestige is open Tuesday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. For more information, call 228-818-9699 or visit vestigerestaurant.com.
Elvie’s: ‘Leaning into French Influences’
On summer afternoons, Hunter Evans often ran around the yard at his grandmother’s New Orleans home. Heading into the kitchen, he would catch sight of his grandmother, Elvie Good, standing over a sink filled with fresh shrimp and peeling them alongside his mother, Karey Evans, as the two prepared dinner together.
The young Evans always stopped whatever he was doing to run over and watch, wanting to learn as much as he could about the New Orleans food culture his grandmother had grown up in. When his mother eventually installed a hibachi grill in the kitchen of Evans’ own home in Jackson during Evans’ high-school years, he immediately took to trying out his grandmother’s shrimp recipes on it.
Today, Evans owns and serves as head chef for Elvie’s, a restaurant in Jackson’s Belhaven community that takes its name from Evans’ grandmother. Evans, who opened his restaurant in late 2019, only recently became eligible for the James Beard Awards “Best Chef: South” designation, which requires a chef to have worked at their current restaurant for a minimum of three years.
“Receiving this nomination is the sort of thing I’ve strived for ever since I first started cooking,” Evans says. “Seeing my name on that list meant a lot to me because Elvie’s has become a place where I feel like I’m supporting and serving my community, from the farmers that supply the ingredients to my guests and employees alike.”
Evans graduated from Jackson Academy in 2008 and went on to the University of Mississippi, where he received a bachelor’s degree in hospitality management in 2012. Afterward, he moved to New York, where he enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. He received his associate degree in culinary arts in 2014 and spent a year working at North End Grill in New York City before moving back to Jackson in 2015 and becoming chef de cuisine at Lou’s Full-Serv.
Elvie’s is what Evans calls an “all-day cafe,” offering breakfast, lunch and dinner service. The menu at Elvie’s has a strong focus on gulf seafood and French-inspired cuisine. One of Evans’ signature dishes is redfish almondine, which is pan-seared redfish topped with brown butter, lemon, capers, chives and parsley served over a bed of buttered lettuce.
“Almondine is a French classic that you’ll see in a lot of old-school restaurants around New Orleans,” Evans says. “The French influences that Natchez and Vicksburg brought in changed the cultural landscape through food.”
Elvie’s is open for breakfast and lunch from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, and for dinner from 4:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For more information, call 601-863 -8828 or visit elviesrestaurant.com
Sambou’s African Kitchen: ‘As Traditional as Possible’
Joseph Sambou, owner of James Beard Best New Restaurant semifinalist Sambou’s African Kitchen, immigrated to Jackson with his mother, Sally Demba, and his sister Bibian Sambou from the Republic of Gambia in West Africa in 2007. His mother and sister brought their traditional African recipes along with them, which quickly proved to be a hit with their new friends and neighbors in Mississippi.
On Sunday afternoons after church, Sambou’s mother regularly hosted large gatherings at their home, where she prepared dishes such as jollof, a dish of meats and fried rice with vegetables and tomato sauce with different regional varieties across the African continent. Sitting at the heavily laden dinner table, Demba’s friends regularly encouraged her to open a restaurant, especially in light of a noticeable absence of traditional African restaurants in the area at the time, but she lacked the means to do so herself back then.
“I was fresh into college at the time, so it didn’t feel right to pursue a restaurant yet because my mother would have been trying to do it alone without help,” Joseph Sambou says.
Sambou received an associate degree at Hinds Community College in Raymond in 2009 and then traveled to New York to enroll at Albany State University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in political science and public law in 2014. While there he met his fiancee, Sophia Muhammad, through a group of mutual friends. The couple had their first date in New York City’s Central Park.
In 2016, Sambou enrolled at City University of New York, where he pursued a master’s degree in political science and administration. After graduating he took a job as a senior certification analyst for New York State’s Department of Economic Development until 2020, when he and his wife decided to return to Mississippi.
“Shortly after we moved into Jackon, we knew we needed something new to do here, and that was when I remembered all those dinner table conversations about opening a restaurant,” Sambou says. “The lack of African representation in Jackson’s restaurant scene hadn’t changed in the time I’d been away, so I got in touch with my mother and sister, and we all decided to finally try opening a restaurant to see how it would go.”
Sambou’s African Kitchen officially opened in March 2022. As Gambian cultural tradition dictates that men do not usually do the cooking, Sambou says, he manages the restaurant’s provisioning and finances while his mother and sister run the kitchen.
“From the beginning we set out to keep all of our dishes as traditional as possible, from the ingredients and seasonings to the preparation,” Sambou says. “Authenticity is what we guarantee here, and people who have come here tell me they can feel the love in every bite. When we got word of the James Beard nomination, we thought it was wonderful to be recognized for something we weren’t even shooting for. We don’t do any of this because we want to win anything, but because we want to share our West African culture with Jackson.”
Sambou’s African Kitchen is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. For more information, call 601-665-4881 or visit sambouafricankitchen.com.
The James Beard Foundation will announce the winners of this year’s awards at the James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards ceremony on Monday, June 5, at the Lyric Opera in Chicago. The foundation will livestream the Restaurant & Chef Awards on Eater beginning at 5:30 p.m. Central Time on Monday, June 5. Tickets for the 32nd annual James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards are available online. For more information, visit jamesbeard.org.