BILOXI — There was a time when great chefs were found only in the confines of great culinary cities, such as Paris, New Orleans, Rome, or New York City. But, those days are long gone. There was also a day when small town restaurants served exactly what your mom served at home, and a trained chef was nowhere to be found.
Those days, too, are of the past.
These changes and many more are a consequence of the amazing food revolution that has swept this country, all fueled by the Food Network, the 1980s slow food movement and the access to information the internet has made available to everyone.
Today, cities throughout Mississippi boast world-class restaurants and chefs. Some of the chefs you may have heard of — Chefs Vish Bhatt and John Currence, both from Oxford, Alex Perry of Ocean Springs, Cole Ellis of Cleveland, Derek Emerson and Jesse Houston of Jackson — are all James Beard Foundation nominees (the Academy Awards of the food world). But it doesn’t take a James Beard nomination to make a great chef.
Some chefs have built reputations with starts at prestigious culinary schools, such as the Culinary Institute of America, or apprenticed with well known chefs, but others worked their way up through the ranks, starting by prepping vegetables or washing dishes. For those who have made it to the top of their profession — starts humble or prestigious — the drive to get it right and be the best was in the end more important than the starting point. Names like Chef Ty Thames, Chef Kristian Wade, Chef Milton Joachim and Chef Adrian Halpaus come to mind of other very talented Mississippi chefs.
But these new and talented chefs are not serving traditional fare — not by a long shot. The slow food movement has inspired many chefs to go from farm and Gulf to table. That means fresher produce and ingredients and support for local farmers. New techniques, such as sous-vide and insistence to make everything from scratch has also had a major impact. Combine these attributes with many chefs’ desire to stay Southern, and the result is a new fusion of traditional and cutting edge menus in restaurants across the South.
It’s impossible to mention every chef in the state who is doing creative things, elevating Southern food (country cooking) into the art form that it really is, but two names come to mind that perhaps best exemplify the level of excellence today’s chefs display. Chefs Patti and Matt Kallinikos both work for the IP Casino Resort Spa in Biloxi. They are married, and both are chefs of remarkable merit.
Chef Matt is the room chef (casino-speak for chef de cuisine) at Thirty-Two (IP Casino Resort and Spa, Biloxi), one of the best fine dining restaurants in the South. It has been recognized by many awards, including being a AAA Four Diamond restaurant and Wine Spectator’s Restaurant Wine List Award. Thirty-Two could be described as the most romantic restaurant in Mississippi, for its beautiful appointments and stunning view (especially at sunset). But even without the beautifying ambiance, the food that chef Matt serves would be stunning in any environment.
Chef Matt started as a 15-year-old dish washer, was fascinated by the things he saw going on in the kitchen, decided to go to a culinary school and was accepted into the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park in New York City. It’s one of the most prestigious culinary schools in the country. He received an associate degree in culinary arts, a bachelor’s degree in hospitality and culinary arts and two post graduate degrees in kitchen and dining room management, all from the Culinary Institute of America. He spent time at the Top of the Hub, one of Boston’s best restaurants, then moved to the Thirty-Two in 2005.
Chef Patti took a different route, attending the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, where she studied in the culinary and pastry program. Her background is in stark contrast to Chef Matt’s, certainly less studied, but she is just as much a master in her skills. She joined the IP culinary team as the pastry chef just five years ago, and is the chef in charge of a pastry kitchen that runs full-speed seven days a week, 24 hours a day. If you have ever tried a dessert from Thirty-Two, Tien, Bay View Café or any of the other restaurants at the IP, you know just how talented she is.
Thirty-Two is a from-scratch kitchen. Chef Matt says, “If we need something, we make it,” and that includes all sauces, stocks, soups, bacon, tasso, Italian sausage, pasta, literally everything but the most basic of ingredients. Chef Patti doesn’t have the luxury of making many sauces or charcuterie, but absolutely every cookie, cake, and pie that comes out of her busy kitchen is made from scratch. There is never a short cut or cheaper substitution.
Both chefs design their own menus with approval from executive chef Shannon Johnson, of course. Chef Matt has seasonal menus to contend with, taking into account not only holidays and the spring to winter associations they make for the food they serve, but also the seasonality of ingredients. Chef Patti’s menu planning is a bit more complex, as she has to come up with a different dessert menu for each restaurant. It’s not a skill that is come by lightly.
Chef Patti has pound cakes, banana bread and pies by the score to make but don’t think it is all the traditional sweets you might be used to. She makes a deconstructed pumpkin pie that involves a ginger apple crust and hazelnut topping and an Italian inspired chocolate budino (an Italian pudding cake) that will knock your socks off. Even with the enormous quantities of bakery good her kitchen produces, her level of originality is remarkable.
Chef Matt has his hands full grilling wagyu beef to perfection, making sous vide seared scallops, escargots à la Bourguignonne, lobster and summer truffle mac and cheese, and Thirty-Two’s signature gourmet burger, to touch ever so lightly on the fall menu, typical of the fare Thirty-Two produces in variety and creativity.
Chef Matt and Patti are at the top of their profession, and a visit to thirty-Two or one of the IP’s other restaurants is a true culinary adventure.
But it isn’t just in the rarefied air of a casino kitchen — with the best of all equipment and ingredients — that amazing culinary adventures can be found in Mississippi. It may be the deep fried black eyed peas at the Blue Canoe in Tupelo or the 36-hour smoked pulled pork at the Blue Biscuit in Indianola, but Mississippi chefs, famous or not, are making a name for this state’s food culture and in a big way.