9 Southern Chefs to Watch in 2017

Scoping out talent at the Charleston Wine and Food Festival
March 14, 2017
by Stephanie Burt

Last weekend was a whirlwind of small plates, big bites, boozy cocktails and lots of bubbly at the 12th annual Charleston Wine + Food Festival. Chefs brought their A-game to the culinary village and beyond as the festival continued its expansion into many nooks and crannies in the Lowcountry, from restaurant kitchens to creekside docks. After tasting our way through the weekend and meeting plenty of new and exciting faces, we've compiled this list of 9 pioneering chefs who you can expect big things from in the not-so-distant future. 

Mashama Bailey, executive chef, The Grey, Savannah, GA

The backstory: Bailey spent part of her childhood in Savannah, so her palate was exposed early to the flavors of the Georgia coast. However, she was much more at home cooking in New York City, especially under Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune, where she spent six years rising from cook to sous-chef in the famous kitchen. All that changed when she walked into a 1938 art deco Greyhound bus terminal with future partner Johno Morisano. The two opened The Grey in December 2014.

Why she’s one to watch: Although Savannah is changing, it can still be decidedly old school. Bailey ignores all that, going her own way with menu choices, seasonality and a nice mix of accessible dishes and ones that are more adventurous, especially for Savannah diners. Roasted "yardbird" and lamb roti are beside crab and coconut with shaved bottarga, something that is probably still a rarity on the city's dinner table. “Savannah has been so welcoming that my transition here has been really easy.” she tells us. Since opening, the restaurant has racked up accolades, including a nomination for Bon Appetit's Best New Restaurants in America and semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s 2015 Best New Restaurant award.

Upcoming projects: The restaurant has an expansive on-site garden that is a continuing source of inspiration for her, a live music series is welcoming the locals to the restaurant that’s enjoyed so much national press, and Bailey is getting more involved in the community. “I am excited each spring as the growing season here goes full tilt. I am getting a giant order of strawberries in this Saturday from one of my favorite local farms. That excites me."

David Bancroft, executive chef, Acre, Auburn, AL

The backstory: Interested in cooking and the outdoors from an early age, Bancroft grew up in San Antonio and attended Auburn University’s School of Business before working six years at the Amsterdam Cafe in Auburn. He opened Acre in 2013 as executive chef/partner with family and close friends, an impressive venture for a self-taught chef. The restaurant has three on-site gardens and Bancroft also hunts and forages for many of the ingredients he uses at Acre.

Why he’s one to watch: Bancroft partners with the Auburn University Meat Laboratory in using humanely raised animals for his charcuterie, he founded the Alabama Oyster Social and his intense focus is paying off, garnering two James Beard Foundation nominations in two years for his work. At Acre, Bancroft has created an exciting modern approach to everything traditional and like many great chefs before him, he's placing a large emphasis on sourcing, something that seems standard in many big cities but is still a refreshing idea in the deep South.  

Upcoming projects: In April, Bancroft cooks for the first time at the James Beard House in NYC with a bevy of other chefs, and back home in ‘bama, he’s mulling over expansion. “I’ve been tinkering with the dream of having another restaurant that focuses on the first foods I learned during my childhood being raised between Alabama and Texas with an emphasis on slow cooking and fire."

Justin Burdett, ​chef-owner, Local Provisions, Asheville, NC

The backstory: Burdett honed his craft as part of acclaimed Atlanta restaurant Miller Union’s opening team and worked under Hugh Acheson at 5&10. As an executive chef, he made a splash at Ruka’s Table in Highlands, NC, before opening Local Provisions in Asheville in 2016, which quickly landed on Eater’s list of The 21 Best New Restaurants in America and on Southern Living’s list of The South’s Best New Restaurants.

Why he’s one to watch: Burdett uses local and seasonal ingredients as a jumping off point to construct highly elevated plates, employing various techniques, from fermentation to freezing. “I just have a particular take on things,” he says. “I like to play and experiment.” That means bold flavors until the end of the meal such as the kimchi and oyster liquor consumme he served as one of the last bites at the festival. While his ingredients might look familiar, there's always a Burdett twist, such as cherry mustard on a stuffed quail dish or corn and vanilla bean soup. Local Provisions had some empty seats in the beginning, but Burdett stuck to his version, hoping that diners would catch on. They have.  

Upcoming projects: Now that Local Provisions is finding its footing as part of Asheville’s culinary scene, Burdett is taking the opportunity to hit the road on occasion to participate in guest chef dinners, something he sees as “a great opportunity to cook with and get inspired by people that I respect. These dinners also create a truly unique experience for guests,” he says, because of their “one-night only” appeal.

Rebecca Masson, ​owner and pastry chef, Fluff Bake Bar, Houston, TX

The backstory: Masson is the most famous chef to ever cook on television with her arm in a cast (check out Top Chef Desserts). But her career was hot long before her stint on the small screen. In 1999, she attended Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, France, earning a Diplôme de Pâtisserie and secured a coveted internship at Hotel le Bristol. Once her pastry studies were complete in France, Rebecca moved to New York where she worked in the renowned kitchens of db Bistro Moderne and Daniel, The Biltmore Room, The Red Cat and BLT Prime. In 2006, she moved to Houston to work with chef Ryan Pera at 17 Restaurant at the Alden Hotel, and in 2015, opened Fluff Bake Bar.

Why she’s one to watch: Masson is a force with a sense of humor and a heart for Houston, her adopted city. “A lot of what I make has nods to family or friends,” she says. “And salt is always my ingredient crush. I have several different salts I use for different reasons. It just balances everything out, and I can’t stand something so sweet that it makes your teeth hurt.” Balance is what makes her creations at Fluff Bake Bar so good. They are familiar and comfortable, but not old fashioned. Her most famous FBB creation is the fluffernutters, her memory of loving Nutter Butter cookies as a child transformed into peanut butter oatmeal cookies with peanut butter cream and marshmallow fluff. There are tarts and pies, wedding cakes, Rice Krispies treats with salted caramel and the Fluff pastry trays are Houston office party gold. 

Upcoming projects: She is a consultant for some of Houston’s best dessert menus, including Shake Shack Houston, and Fluff continues to build its reputation as a Houston destination with Masson’s dinner with friends series as well as her collaborative Saturday morning bake sales.

John May, executive chef, Piedmont Restaurant, Durham, NC

The backstory: May was more than a pretty face on Vivian Howard’s A Chef’s Life TV series. He was a capable sous-chef running a busy kitchen at Chef & the Farmer in front of cameras for two and a half years, then he returned to his native Durham in August 2016 to take the helm at Piedmont. A former United States Marine, May also studied at The Art Institute in Durham, cooked at the Weathervane at Southern Season and at The Boot.

Why he’s one to watch: His calm demeanor translates into the laid-back vibe at Piedmont, an extension of Coon Rock Farm (owned by the same couple). May’s a big fan of chef's tweezers and petite herbs and greens for garnishes, but there’s deep satisfaction for the diner in most dishes on the menu, especially the seafood, one of his passions, as well as veggie-forward offerings. His use of diverse produce, from muscadines to beets to broccoli rabe is particularly exciting to see on any Southern menu. 

Upcoming projects: He is focusing on making Piedmont stronger. “We are working even more closely with the garden this season, going out to plant what I’d like to use,” he explains. Inside the restaurant, he likes to keep the kitchen open to guest chefs, from his Seasons of the Sea dinners to special projects as they arise.

Nick Melvin, executive chef and partner, Venkman’s and owner, Doux South, Atlanta and Decatur, GA

The backstory: His first executive chef position was at the Serenbe Farmhouse in Georgia in 2008. In 2009, Melvin went on to stints at Parish and Empire State South alongside chef Hugh Acheson. He’s now chef-partner at Venkman’s with a hefty side project of Doux South, a pickle company that makes some serious inroads into the brined world beyond cucumbers, including chow-chow and something he calls “drunken tomatoes."

Why he’s worth watching: During his tenure at Serenbe, the The New York Times named the restaurant a “Southeastern showcase for the country’s growing farm-to-table movement, winning accolades for food that is both innovative and authentic.” These days, he really seems to be coming into his own at Venkman’s, showing diners his true self through seasonal, modern comfort food in a nightly live music venue that fits his sly style. With dishes like dark miso broth with shrimp dumplings and smoked chicken wings with gingered pickled carrots, he is going above and beyond what diners at a live music venue might expect. At the festival, he competed in Saturday’s biscuit challenge and topped his biscuit with a housemade rabbit country-style sausage that had an all-star judge’s lineup asking for seconds.  

Upcoming projects: Doux South continues to expand its reach and its lineup, and while Melvin will continue to rock the menu at Venkman’s, his artisan products will continue to develop as well. He’s now creating custom preserves and pickles for select restaurants, and you’ll be able to spot his products on select Delta airlines flights as well. “I just really want to create something simple and small and memorable, like that taste from your grandma’s table,” he says. An Atlanta-made pickle on a regional flight? That’s memorable indeed.

Elliott Moss, executive chef/pitmaster, Buxton Hall Barbecue, Asheville, NC

The backstory: Moss moved to Asheville in 2007 to help open The Admiral and was nominated for Best Chef: Southeast from the James Beard Foundation while cooking there in 2013. He left soon after and started a series of Punk Wok pop-ups at Chai Pani and eventually opened Buxton Hall Barbecue, which was named one of Bon Appetit’s top 10 Best New Restaurants for 2016.

Why he’s one to watch: A Moss signature is cooking veggies that have roasted under a hog on the spit. Southern staples such as green beans topped with potatoes taste next level, and his whole hog ‘cue stacks up with some of the best in the South. Additionally, he's one of the only people in North Carolina making distinctive South Carolina hash (it takes days to make). His craft is evident in his attention to detail and his adherence to Eastern NC–style barbecue, but also exciting for his ability to experiment with other cooking styles if the spirit moves him. Nominated again for Best Chef: Southeast by the JBF, Moss also authored a cookbook this year while getting his new barbecue baby off the ground.

Upcoming projects: His next project, The Remingtin Room, just opened, and “allows him to continue to explore concepts beyond the scope of whole hog barbecue.” It’s located upstairs from Buxton Hall and is a rotating pop-up of sorts on Friday and Saturday nights.

Erik Niel, executive chef, Easy Bistro and Main Street Meats, Chattanooga, TN

The backstory: Niel grew up on the northside of Lake Ponchatrain in Louisiana and attended culinary school at Johnson & Wales in Vail, Colorado. Upon moving to Chattanooga, he worked as a floor manager at the now-closed Southside Grill and then as a sous-chef for two years at St. John’s. In May of 2005, Niel and his wife Amanda opened Easy Bistro & Bar in downtown Chattanooga and in 2014 the couple took over operations of Main Street Meats, a butcher shop.

Why he’s one to watch: It’s not as if Niel is a newbie; his Easy Bistro & Bar has been open in Chattanooga for more than a decade, but since he’s taken over operation of Main Street Meats in the last few years, he's stealing more and more spotlight. Up for a JBF award for the second year in a row, Niel is wowing diners with plates of pork belly with oyster and black trumpet mushrooms or snapper with tumeric-saffron crème fraîche. And he can suggest the perfect pairings for those since he shapes the wine list at Easy as well. 

Upcoming projects: The Niels are working on a few projects, but nothing that’s ready to share right now, so in the meantime he’s visiting the Southern Living test kitchens, cooking as part of the Scenic City Supper Club, and participating in food festivals and special events.

Kevin Ouzts, ​executive chef/owner/charcutier, The Spotted Trotter, Atlanta, GA

The backstory: Although it’s admittedly odd to find a chef on this list that recently closed a restaurant, stay with us. Atlanta charcuterie master Ouzts closed The Cockentrice to recommit his initial focus on The Spotted Trotter, which he opened in June 2010 after what he calls “an inspirational education” at The Fatted Calf and The French Laundry in Northern California. A graduate of Le Cordon Bleu and former sous-chef under chef Linton Hopkins at Restaurant Eugene, he once created a stained glass window out of aspic and charcuterie for a special event.

Why he’s one to watch: Like many of our favorite chefs, he prioritizes humanely raised proteins and sustainable ingredients grown close to home, in his case Atlanta. His mantra is “focusing on the details of good meat and making it right.” All the recipes are small batch, his menu rotates weekly, there is seasonality in the selection of cured meat and sausages and whole spices are toasted and ground in-house before being incorporated into any product. He thinks a lot about the theory behind his cooking, cutting,and curing at The Spotted Trotter, as well as its impact on the environment. And since he’s about to open Barleygarden Kitchen and Craft Bar, he's ready to once again try his hand at expanding what he does beyond the borders of butchery. 

Upcoming projects: “We’re currently eyeing warehouse space and on the hunt to relocate because we need more room,” he says of The Spotted Trotter. And as mentioned above, Ouzts has signed on as a partner in the yet-to-open Barleygarden Kitchen and Craft Bar coming to Avalon in Alpharetta any time now. 

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