The recent announcement that Chef Alex Perry, of Vestige in Ocean Springs, was nominated for a James Beard Award, Best Chef South, has the restaurant phone ringing for reservations and the congratulations pouring in.
“People are even stopping me on the street,” says Chef Perry. “This is surreal, I never expected this.” But one thing we can be assured of, Perry insists, “This changes nothing in the kitchen or restaurant.”
Notable Coast chefs have sent congratulations, including Kristian Wade, executive chef at the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino, Milton Joachim of Charred, Austin Sumrall of White Pillars and David Dickensauge of 27th Avenue Bistro. Social media comments and phone calls continued for several days from other chefs, customers and friends after the announcement.
Vestige is a farm-to-table, seasonal restaurant, with a menu that changes almost daily. Perry describes Vestige as casual fine dining, and the cuisine as Modern American.
Within a year of opening, Perry and Vestige were gaining notoriety as a cutting-edge restaurant, using new techniques like an immersion circulator to cook sous vide (now quite common) and ingredients of the highest quality.
The James Beard awards are the most important recognition an American chef can receive, outside of the French Michelin stars. They are most often called the “Oscars” of the food world, but they are so much more to the chefs who labor in an industry that is famously brutal, unforgiving and, more often than not, offers no recognition at all.
The foundation describes itself in this way: “The James Beard Foundation’s mission is to celebrate, nurture, and honor chefs and other leaders making America’s food culture more delicious, diverse, and sustainable for everyone.”
There are a handful of deserving Coast chefs that could have been nominated, but Alex Perry is unique in many ways. He is a native of Ocean Springs, and initially decided to follow the scientific career path of his mother, Harriet Perry, now a senior research scientist at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory.
After graduating with a bachelor of science degree in biology from the University of South Alabama, his tastes and interest had changed, and he decided to go for a culinary degree at the Orlando campus of the famed Le Cordon Bleu school.
Perry’s greatest influence in developing his own style, after Le Cordon Bleu, was Thomas Keller and his famous French Laundry restaurant (which was awarded three Michelin stars). Keller was famous for meticulous attention to detail and amazingly high standards, from knife skills to quality of ingredients.
Perry still meets every delivery at the back door and inspects every fish and every vegetable to ensure freshness.
“It’s the difference in production verses quality, and the drive to get it right,” he said. Perry also inspects every dish that leaves the kitchen, and there is nothing haphazard about plating, colors and plate compositions, ingredient pairings, and even textures. Nothing leaves the kitchen that isn’t perfect.
Kumi Perry, co-owner and Perry’s wife, bakes bread fresh every day, make all the desserts from scratch, assembles salads and helps in many other ways. She is an integral part of the kitchen and every bit as driven as Perry to get things right. The same can be said for sous chef Carson Neaves, along with front of the house Rachel Gnapp, Mike Anthony and intern Steven Mockler.
“Its not about getting rich, or doing huge volume, it’s about getting the details right and paying attention to the small things,” Perry said.