Hackney chef named James Beard Award Semi-Finalist

Published 2:31 pm Friday, January 26, 2024

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Jamie Davis, executive chef at The Hackney, says one of the challenges of being a chef in Eastern North Carolina is the perception that this area does not have the same level of talent as large cities like Charlotte, Savannah and Charleston do. Davis is overcoming that perception and making a name for himself in the culinary world by becoming a James Beard Award semi-finalist for Best Chef Southeast. 

Winning a James Beard Foundation Award in the culinary world can be equated to a newspaper winning a Pulitzer Prize. The James Beard Foundation Awards is the most prestigious award given to a chef and/or restaurant in the United States. 

“It’s not just for me getting the award. I’m from Jacksonville, North Carolina. No chefs are coming out of Jacksonville, North Carolina. I live in Washington. Nobody thinks any chefs are coming out of here…I know chefs that really work their tail off and they’re really good, but since they’re in Eastern North Carolina, nobody’s going to pay attention to them and that sucks. So it’s like for all of us – let’s all just ride together,” Davis said, explaining that local chefs should support and encourage each other’s work. 

Davis didn’t grow up wanting to be a chef. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, but cooking at Smithfields Chicken and Barbeque developed his interest in food and culinary arts. In 2011, he graduated from culinary school. On his Instagram page (@carolinachef) he often uses #JamesBeardDreams in the caption. People in his life have pointed to that hashtag saying he “manifested” the award. 

Davis joins a “crew” of chefs who, like him, have top culinary honors: Ricky Moore, chef and owner at Saltbox Seafood Joint in Durham and a James Beard Award winner for Best Chef Southeast, Geg Collier a James Beard nominated chef and owner at Leah and Louise and at Uptown Yolk in Charlotte, Sam Hart chef and owner of Counter in Charlotte and James Beard Finalist for Best Chef Southeast and Keith Rhodes chef and owner of Catch in Wilmington and a James Beard Finalist for Best Chef Southeast. 

These are chefs in Davis’ small circle of influence that inspire him and each other. “I could probably name 20 chefs that we all like communicate with. We all do events together. Especially Ricky Moore is my go to if I need advice. Sam always messages me… Those are really ones I communicate with.” 

“I even got a message from one of them that said, ‘welcome to the crew,’” Davis shared.

 Now a James Beard semi-finalist, Davis said it’s a “weird feeling” knowing that there could be younger chefs looking up to him and being inspired by his recipes. “I always want to look out for the younger people and the younger chefs, because this industry is tough and a lot of times people are just trying to get over them and not really try to educate them.”  

Being part of the crew is an honor, but it also adds a level of pressure to keep producing menus and recipes worthy of a James Beard Award. 

“You start thinking, okay, now you have to be on point every day. It’s just the beginning now. It’s like we’re starting from square one on a whole different level,” Davis said. His staff encouraged him by telling to keep doing what he’s already doing, because it’s working. 

Davis’ menu changes with the seasons, because The Hackney uses locally sourced ingredients. Examples are used in his dishes that are influenced by cultures in the South: French, Spanish, Native American, African and English. 

His dishes are inspired by local ingredients and by other chefs. Davis researches what other chefs are doing and puts his spin on their recipes to create a dish that is both unique and tailored to Eastern North Carolina. 

He said there’s at least one dish on every menu that makes him stand back and be proud of his creation. 

Susanne Hackney, co-owner of The Hackney and restaurant manager, said Davis’ seafood entrees are some of his best. On the current menu he is serving fried Carolina Classics catfish topped with chowder and served with local clams, Bay scallops, corn, tomato and ham and Smoked Trout Roe. Hackney added that visitors from Charleston, South Carolina say Davis’ shrimp and grits is the best they’ve ever had. 

Having a James Beard semi-finalist as a chef is “wonderful” for The Hackney, she said. For her, Davis winning an award exemplifies the phrase, “you can accomplish whatever you put your mind to.”   

“Even over COVID when Jamie and I would sit here – we believed we were Michelin quality, too. We believed we were James Beard quality. It was just a matter of time,” Hackney said. 

Hackney said the beauty of Davis being executive chef at the Hackney is that she and dinner patrons can trust he will prepare excellent meals. She said local business people who opt for the three course dinner “love knowing they can trust Jaime and know that it’s going to be good.” 

Davis is optimistic that his award will entice talented chefs to move to and work in Washington.

“And now it’s like we’re going to get more talent in Washington. Before they were like “oh, they have a good restaurant out there, but now it’s like ‘they’ve got a James Beard semi-finalist there. Okay, I want to work there,’” he said. 

He also hopes his award will show younger chefs in the area that they don’t have to go to a larger market to make a name for themselves. 

“It could be motivating for younger people in smaller markets who always feel like you have to live in a bigger city to make it, but you really don’t. Hopefully that will change somebody’s opinion,” Davis said. 

That opinion, he explained further, is that Washington and similar nearby towns are just river communities and people are often surprised that “the food’s good or we have a great wine list.” 

Davis wants more avenues of success that travel into and out of small towns rather than large cities exclusively.  

“I think this region is going to bring a whole other light, because we’re not the Triangle, we’re not Charlotte or Asheville, but I think we do just as good as those areas,” Davis said. 

He added that being in a small town gives him creative freedom. Unlike large cities where chefs are often buying from the same suppliers, Davis can build recipes that highlight the best of what is farmed in this area. 

Davis is the second James Beard Foundation Award semi-finalist in the Inner Banks region. Vivian Howard, of Kinston, was a semi-finalist for Best Chef Southeast in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015. She also won a James Beard Award for Best Instructional Video in 2018 and another for Outstanding Food Personality or Host in 2016. 

Davis would like readers to try The Hackney if they haven’t already. Speaking to perceptions of The Hackney, he said, “I think a lot of people will say, ‘oh, you have to be dressed up.’ No, come as you are. Relax. Come get some good food. There’s something on the menu for everybody.” 

The Hackney is located at 192 West Main St., Washington. It is open for dinner Tuesday through Thursday from 5:15 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. and Friday from 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. It is open on Saturday from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. and reopens at 5:15 p.m. till 10:30 p.m. Reservations can be emailed to reservations@thehackneydistillery.com 

About James Beard and the James Beard Foundation, from the Foundation’s website: 

“Anointed the ‘Dean of American cookery’ by the New York Times in 1954, James Beard laid the groundwork for the food revolution that has put America at the forefront of global gastronomy. He was a pioneer foodie, host of the first food program on the fledgling medium of television in 1946, the first to suspect that classic American culinary traditions might cohere into a national cuisine, and an early champion of local products and markets. Beard nurtured a generation of American chefs and cookbook authors who have changed the way we eat.”

“The James Beard Foundation (JBF) is a 501(c)3 organization that celebrates and supports the people behind America’s food culture, while pushing for new standards in the restaurant industry to create a future where all have the opportunity to thrive. Established over 30 years ago, the Foundation has highlighted the centrality of food culture in our daily lives and is committed to supporting a resilient and flourishing industry that honors its diverse communities. By amplifying new voices, celebrating those leading the way, and supporting those on the path to do so, the Foundation is working to create a more equitable and sustainable future—what we call Good Food for Good®. JBF brings its mission to life through the annual Awards, industry and community-focused initiatives and programs, advocacy, partnerships, and events across the country.”