By LISA MONTI
Chef Alex Perry, owner of the Modern American restaurant Vestige in Ocean Springs, was shocked to learn he was chosen as a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef in the South. A chef in Biloxi saw Perry’s name on the list and called him with the news that he was in the running.
“You can apply, but we did not,” Perry said of the award, considered the Oscars of the culinary world. He had applied for the honor a few years ago but since then set aside the idea, believing chefs from culinary hot spots as New Orleans and Oxford had a better shot making the cut. “I kind of assumed, because Ocean Springs is a super small town and we’re a super small restaurant,” he said, adding “It’s always possible they noticed us but simply thought we weren’t good enough. Us not cutting the mustard was always a factor.”
Finding his name was on the 2019 list was an unreal experience for Perry. “At first it felt like Ed McMahon showed up with a big check and I didn’t enter the drawing.”
The chef and his wife, Kumi Omori, a partner in Vestige, still don’t know who nominated him for best chef the region that takes in Alabama, Arkansas, Puerto Rico, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi. He’s up against against nominees including Alex Eaton of The Manship Wood Fired Kitchen in Jackson, Slade Rushing of Brennan’s in New Orleans and Vishwesh Bhatt of Snackbar in Oxford.
The couple opened Vestige six years ago in Perry’s hometown after he worked seven years at Noja, a Mediterranean restaurant in Mobile. That was Perry’s first job after graduating from the Orlando Culinary School. Omori, who Perry says wears many hats, bakes all of the restaurant’s bread and desserts and oversees the wine and beer lists. She uses her background in graphic design to artfully plate desserts and salads and handles the menu layout and the restaurant’s website.
Vestige, located in a small house in the city’s busy downtown, is small, with maximum seating for around 30, and a staff of six, including the owners. It’s open five days a week for lunch and dinner. Perry and Omori put in 70 to 75 hours a week to keep things running.
The restaurant name, Perry said, comes for the experience that lingers after diners have eaten a meal there. “Restaurant customers don’t leave with anything tangible. It’s more about the experience of what they had, how the service was, the atmosphere, how the food looked. The next day all they have left is the memory of the meal. That’s what we wanted the restaurant to be about, the vestiges of the experience they had here.”
The owners remain true to their original ideal for their restaurant. “We stay laser focused on small plates and changing up the small menu regularly,” Perry said. He describes Vestige dishes as clean, fresh and seasonal. Flavors are coaxed out of the fresh ingredients rather than covered in sauce.
“In lots of Gulf Coast restaurants the traditional fine dining has always been Creole inspired, with lots of butter or cream and big protein, heavily sauced. We don’t cook that way at all. We barely even make stock,” he said.
The scratch-made menu is small and the prices reflect the quality ingredients and professional preparation. Small plate selections include miso-brûléed king salmon with burnt honey and pan-seared foie gras with kumquat marmalade. Wagyu beef and duck breast are among the larger entrees.
Prices for small plates are around $10 to $19 and main courses are $23 to $38. Perry said he wants to “make sure people get what they pay for” by putting as much value into a dish as possible. Artistic presentation by the kitchen adds to the value of each dish.
Summer is the busy season for Vestige, with diners visiting the Coast from all over the country. In the cold months the majority of customers are local, with others traveling from New Orleans, Jackson, Mobile and Pensacola. “We get snowbirds every now and then,” he said. Locals are known to come in for a full meal or shared appetizers and a glass of wine a couple of times a week, he said.
“We are cooking what we love to cook and we’re fortunate there are enough people on the Gulf Coast to keep the doors open,” Perry said.
The Beard Foundation will narrow down the nominees and announce the finalists March 27 in Houston. The award winners will be revealed at a gala in Chicago on May 6.
Perry, though, says he won’t be watching. “I never expected we’d make it this far. Just getting that nomination has been really good for the staff and having all their hard work recognized. There’s some really talented people on that list, some for four or five years, and I feel they’re overdue. I don’t expect going any further. This is plenty good for us.”
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