It’s Automatic: Alabama chef Adam Evans wins coveted James Beard Award

It’s Automatic: Alabama chef Adam Evans wins coveted James Beard Award
Chef Kwame Onwuachi, left, awards Chef Adam Evans with Best Chef: South award at the 2022 James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards at Lyric Opera of Chicago on June 13, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. (Jeff Schear/Getty Images for James Beard Foundation )

The road to reserving a table at Birmingham’s popular Automatic Seafood & Oysters restaurant just got “bumpier.”

Chef Adam Evans on Monday night won a coveted James Beard Award for Best Chef: South. Many consider the awards to be life-changing for those in the restaurant industry who become semifinalists and finalists, but especially for those who win. A “Beard bump” drives flocks of food lovers to winners’ restaurants.

“Wow,” a low-key Evans said from the Lyric Opera of Chicago stage before offering a short chuckle. “Wow.

“Twenty years ago, I moved to New Orleans to learn how to cook. And it was there I learned about the James Beard Foundation and the awards and I thought, maybe if I worked hard, I could get my name on a list at some point,” said Evans, who owns Automatic with his wife, Suzanne Humphries Evans. “So, this is unreal for me to stand here today.”

Evans did more than get his name on a list. He won Best Chef: South over fellow Birmingham area finalist Timothy Hontzas of Johnny’s Restaurant in Homewood, and chefs at three of New Orleans’ hottest restaurants.

Chefs from Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Puerto Rico are eligible for Best Chef: South. Evans joins iconic Birmingham chefs Frank Stitt and Chris Hastings as regional Best Chef winners. (Hastings won Best Chef: South in 2012, while Stitt won Best Chef: Southeast in 2001.)

Automatic Seafood and Oysters opened in April 2019. The restaurant quickly became a vibrant addition to the Birmingham restaurant scene and drew notice from far beyond. In 2020, the James Beard Foundation chose Automatic as a finalist for Best New Restaurant, a designation that lives forever after the foundation canceled the awards due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

RELATED: Automatic Seafood and Oysters has emerged as Alabama culinary star

RELATED: Automatic Seafood & Oysters is fresh, vibrant addition to Birmingham’s dining scene

Now an actual winner, Evans on Monday night thanked God, the foundation for its work to make the industry better, other nominees and chefs he learned from, especially “my chef and mentor Damon Wise, who literally taught me everything I know about cooking and he should be the one standing up here today.”

Evans also thanked his staff at Automatic, Raymond Harbert for “believing in me and taking a chance on us, and the community, my community of Birmingham, Alabama, which is truly amazing.” He thanked his mother “for teaching me the love of cooking,” as well as his father, stepmother and brothers “for their endless support.”

Evans saved his most poignant thanks for last.

“I’d like to thank my wife, Suzanne, who’s the best partner. She designed the seafood restaurant of my dreams and then she stayed there to help me open it and run it without ever working in a restaurant. Suzanne, I love you,” he said as the camera cut to his teary-eyed wife in the audience. “She’s also the best mother to our little baby boy. Hank Evans, this is for you.”

Best Chef Awards honor “chefs who set high standards in their culinary skills and leadership abilities, and who are making efforts to help create a sustainable work culture in their respective regions,” according to the James Beard Foundation.

Writers published in Birmingham-based Food & Wine magazine also claimed James Beard Awards. Beard Journalism Award winners announced Saturday, June 11, included:

  • Mary-France Heck for “The Way of Clay” in the Home Cooking category, which “honors imaginative and substantive entries that use fresh, innovative approaches – both written and visual – to illuminate cooking methods, ingredients and recipes.”
  • Kaylee Hammonds for “The Dangers of Bartending While Asian” in the Personal Essay, Short Form category. The category “recognizes excellence in a short essay on any food and/or drink-related topic.”

The foundation established the James Beard Awards in 1990 and they have become among the most prestigious honors in the culinary and food media industries. The mission of the awards is “to recognize exceptional talent and achievement in the culinary arts, hospitality, media, and broader food system, as well as a demonstrated commitment to racial and gender equity, community, sustainability, and a culture where all can thrive.”

Automatic Seafood has emerged as a dining dynamo on Birmingham’s culinary scene. (file)

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