The South's Best Chefs 2019

Chef Vivian Howard
Photo: Baxter Miller

The Chefs category was a new addition to the South's Best survey this year. The editors felt it was the right time to recognize and celebrate some of the best culinary geniuses and champions of our region. From Athens and Asheville to Cleveland and Charleston, the top ten winners represent so many different places, passions, and styles. Southern cooking means more than just delicious food, great service, and gracious hospitality – it is a commitment to our communities. We applaud each of these individuals–Vivian, Frank, Cole, Mashama, Kevin, Mike, Hugh, Tory, Ashley, Katie–for the impact each of you are making in the South today.

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Vivian Howard

Vivian Howard did not set out to become a chef at all, much less a Southern one, and certainly not in Deep Run, her tiny hometown in rural eastern North Carolina.

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1. Vivian Howard

Chef Vivian Howard
Baxter Miller

Kinston, North Carolina

Vivian Howard grew up in rural eastern North Carolina, and when she left, she never actually imagined coming back. She did more than return – she created a Southern food community that celebrates her region and the people in North Carolina. While there have been numerous times in her career when she has been considered the best of the best, this is the moment when her culinary excellence and hometown spirit make her the South's number one pick. Read more.

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2. Frank Stitt

Frank Stitt
Robbie Caponetto

Birmingham, Alabama

In 2018, after 10 years of James Beard Award Outstanding Restaurant nominations for Highlands Bar and Grill, Frank Stitt finally brought the medal back to Birmingham, where he laid the foundation for not just the city's current dining scene but also the larger South's culinary comeback.

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3. Cole Ellis

Chef Cole Ellis
Rory Doyle

Cleveland, Mississippi

Cole Ellis' Delta Meat Market is one of the first restaurants of its kind in the culturally deep Mississippi Delta. Here, he reveals new perspectives on vernacular foods from locally ground grits with osso buco to sweet potatoes dressed in a chile-sorghum sauce.

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4. Mashama Bailey

Chef Mashama Bailey
Peter Frank Edwards

Savannah, Georgia

Pushing her guests to reconsider Lowcountry cuisine beyond the traditional shrimp and grits, Mashama Bailey coalesces the ancestral culture that created it on her menu at The Grey with West African flavors and locally significant ingredients such as red peas and benne seeds.

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5. Kevin Johnson

Chef Kevin Johnson
Andrew Cebulka

Charleston, South Carolina

In a city with an embarrassment of riches in terms of big-name chefs, The Grocery's Kevin Johnson has been an unsung hero. His superpower: conjuring up dream-haunting vegetable dishes that pack just as much action as the amazing bone-in rib eye.

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6. Mike Lata

Chef Mike Lata
Robbie Caponetto

Charleston South Carolina

Mike Lata continues to reign over Charleston's most sought-after restaurants 16 years after starting his flagship FIG. His cloudlike, cult-followed ricotta gnocchi and his fuss-free approach to local seafood helped turn the city into a global dining destination.

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7. Hugh Acheson

Chef Hugh Acheson
Peter Frank Edwards

Athens and Atlanta, Georgia

While the rest of American watches him judge competitors on Top Chef and dog-ears the pages of his four cookbooks, Hugh Acheson will always first belong to Athens, Georgia, where he started a homegrown revolution in Southern cooking.

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8. Tory McPhail

Chef Tory McPhail
Cedric Angeles

New Orleans, Louisiana

Since inheriting the executive chef position in a storied kitchen in 2002, Tory McPhail has made his mark on Commander's Palace by known when not to mess with tradition (like the turtle soup) and when to improve upon it (like carefully sourcing Louisiana-grown ingredients for most items on the menu).

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9. Ashley Christensen

Chef Ashley Christensen
Robbie Caponetto

Raleigh, North Carolina

Some might refer that chefs keep their opinions in the kitchen, but Ashley Christensen continues to prove the value of culinary professionals adding to current conversations, especially in empowering women in the hospitality industry.

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10. Katie Button

Chef Katie Button
Robbie Caponetto

Asheville, North Carolina

Beer City is now known as Tapas Town, thanks to Katie Button, who has brought the best Spanish food this side of the Atlantic to North Carolina at her restaurant, Cúrate. Even in a town filled with discerning diners who have lots of choices, Cúrate stands out.

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