Mississippi's New Wave

Mississippi's New Wave

Meet the Forces Shaping the Future of the Magnolia State

Words by Ashley Locke

Vishwesh Bhatt

The narrative of southern food is changing. A recipient of the prestigious James Beard Award and the title of 2019 Southern Living Southerner of the Year, Chef Vishwesh Bhatt is on the forefront of defining a new era of Mississippi dining.

Bhatt's love affair with Southern cuisine began in the most unassuming way—cooking rice and beans in a college dorm room to save a few bucks. Little did he know, this simple act would set him on a path to become a culinary icon. Fast forward to today, and Bhatt proudly calls the South his home, his source of inspiration, and a crucial part of his identity.

His professional career officially kicked off in 2001 when he joined Chef John Currence's City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi. In a state renowned for its rich culinary traditions, Bhatt found familiarity. He had a seamless connection with Southern ingredients—greens, okra, black-eyed peas, and eggplant—that were also used in Indian recipes.

Through his work at City Grocery and later at Snackbar, which he opened in 2009, Bhatt has championed a menu that beautifully merges Southern and subcontinental foodways. His dishes, like the Kerala Fried Chicken Sandwich and Tabla Waldorf Salad, tell a story of cultural amalgamation and shared experiences, transforming Oxford into a culinary destination. 

Being named the 2019 James Beard Foundation Best Chef South was not just a professional milestone for Bhatt; it was a validation of his influence on transforming the culinary landscape of Mississippi. "I’m a Southern chef, and this is my home," he said—and you can taste the relationship between his identity and the cuisine he passionately crafts on every plate.

In addition to his restaurant success, Bhatt is also the author of the critically acclaimed "I Am From Here," a cookbook that delves into the stories behind his most beloved recipes. As he continues to elevate Mississippi's culinary profile, Bhatt stands as a proud representative of the state, proving that the modern South has a place at the table alongside culinary giants. In a world where food transcends borders, Chef Vishwesh Bhatt is bridging cultures, one delicious dish at a time.

Nashlie Sephus 

Jackson, Mississippi is beginning a transformative symphony of technology, community, and innovation—and it’s all thanks to Nashlie Sephus. This tech trailblazer is not just dreaming of a brighter future for her hometown; she's making it a reality. As an applied science manager for Amazon's artificial intelligence initiative, Sephus has reached remarkable heights, but her most audacious project yet is unfolding on 21 acres of once-forgotten land in downtown Jackson.

Sephus, a Mississippi native, spent the many years commuting between Jackson and Atlanta, where she worked with Amazon, following the acquisition of Partpic, a visual recognition technology startup where she served as the chief technology officer. In 2018, she founded The Bean Path, a nonprofit incubator and technology consulting organization in Jackson, dedicated to helping local businesses and individuals with tech knowledge and skills.

Her latest venture, the Jackson Tech District, is revitalizing the community that raised her. With a $150-million plan, Sephus aimed to turn the neglected urban landscape into a thriving tech hub—an ambitious goal for a city not traditionally associated with technological innovation.

The path to real estate development was an unexpected one for Sephus, who started with a computer engineering degree from Mississippi State University and later earned a master's and Ph.D. in computer engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology. Yet, her journey took a turn in 2018 when she envisioned creating a tech hub while searching for office space for The Bean Path.

Overcoming challenges, skepticism, and the need for significant capital, Sephus secured the property in September 2020. Her approach combines philanthropy, private investments, crowdfunding, grants, tax credits, and opportunity zone funding to ensure the project's success. 

Her vision for the Jackson Tech District was nothing short of groundbreaking. The project involves the development of approximately 800,000 square feet of workspace. The makerspace has already opened its doors, and over the course of the build, the area will evolve into a dynamic space featuring an electronics lab, a photography studio, apartments, restaurants, and even a grocery store. Central to her plan is an innovation center designed to empower entrepreneurs with essential technology skills.

For Sephus, the driving force behind this bold endeavor is the desire to bring investment and opportunity to a community that has often been overlooked. She understands the importance of setting the next generation up for success. Sephus's commitment to community development and inclusivity is at the forefront of her efforts. She envisions the Jackson Tech District not just as a tech hub but as a self-sustaining village—a vibrant space where people can live, work, play, eat, and innovate.

Through her work with The Bean Path and the Jackson Tech District, Sephus is not only bridging the tech gap in Mississippi but also proving that transformative change can come from unexpected quarters. Her journey, marked by resilience, innovation, and a deep love for her community, positions Nashlie Sephus as a true changemaker in the modern South.

Alex Perry 

In the charming town of Ocean Springs, Chef Alex Perry has created an eclectic dining experience that blends Southern tradition with innovative flair. Perry's journey to becoming a James Beard semi-finalist was anything but conventional—a tale of risks, resilience, and the pursuit of a passion that reshaped the culinary landscape of his hometown.

Originally studying epidemiology at the University of South Alabama, Perry found himself disillusioned with the monotony of the field. A microbiology graduate, he decided to take a gamble, enrolling in the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Miami. It was a pivot driven by a simple notion—he didn’t hate cooking. Little did he know that this spontaneous decision would become the foundation for his future success.

Returning to his roots on the Gulf Coast after finishing culinary school, Perry spent seven years at the helm of NoJa, a Mediterranean restaurant in Mobile, learning the intricacies of restaurant life. It was a learning experience, and formative in his career.

When he was ready to open his own restaurant, Perry and his wife, Kumi Omori, had their eyes set on Charleston, a culinary hotspot. However, fate had different plans. A space in his hometown of Ocean Springs became available, and Perry reasoned that starting out in the place he grew up might increase the chances of success. Thus, in 2013, Vestige was born—a restaurant that would put Ocean Springs on the culinary map.

Ocean Springs is most well known for its fresh seafood, but Perry was inspired to look beyond the gulf waters. He sought to explore the wild, underutilized bounty of the Gulf Coast region, incorporating indigenous plants like elderflower, dewberries, and wax myrtle into his dishes, offering a different perspective on traditional Southern cuisine. Then what began as a farm-to-table concept gradually embraced elements of Japanese cuisine, inspired by Omori's roots.

Perry envisioned Vestige not just as a restaurant but as an experience—a lingering memory akin to the definition of its namesake. Vestige's menu, curated as a tasting experience, reflects Perry's excitement for experimentation, using what’s seasonal, what’s interesting, and most importantly, what tastes good. His passion earned him three James Beard Best Chef South nominations, becoming a semi-finalist for the award in 2023.

For nearly a decade, Chef Alex Perry has been leaving a mark on Mississippi's culinary scene. Vestige represents the belief that each dish should be a masterpiece. Perry's relentless pursuit of culinary excellence has not only garnered national recognition but has also transformed Ocean Springs into a culinary destination.

Patrick Weems

In the Mississippi Delta, where the echoes of history linger and the air is thick with stories, Patrick Weems is setting a path of transformation—one that speaks to the complexities of the past and paves the way for a more just future. A native of Jackson, Weems has dedicated over a decade to the pursuit of racial justice and restorative healing, emerging as a community builder, social entrepreneur, and philanthropy leader.

Weems's journey is entwined with the soil of Mississippi, where he co-founded the Summer Youth Institute, a program under The Alluvial Collective. This experiential learning initiative strives to empower the youth, instilling in them the values of empathy, understanding, and the courage to challenge the status quo. Weems's efforts extend beyond the Institute, reaching the very roots of the state's history.

At the helm of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center (ETIC), Weems uses art and storytelling to share the tragic tale of Emmett Till. Located in Sumner, Mississippi, the ETIC is a Civil Rights museum focused on memorializing Till's story. Till, from Chicago, was visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi, when he allegedly whistled at a white woman named Carolyn Bryant. In retaliation, Bryant's husband and his half-brother abducted, brutally beat, and murdered Till. Despite overwhelming evidence, the two men were acquitted by an all-white jury. The event served as a pivotal moment, galvanizing the civil rights struggle and drawing attention to the injustices faced by African Americans in the United States. Today, the center engages the public, fostering conversations that address enduring racial divisions, creating conditions for reflection, and paving the way for healing.

Weems's work is a bridge between the past and the present, acknowledging the painful chapters of history while shaping a narrative that guides Mississippi towards racial reconciliation. The historical marker at Graball Landing, a site representing where Till’s body came out of the Tallahatchie River, is now protected after years of desecration. It’s a poignant example of the challenges faced in telling these stories. Yet, Weems remains undeterred, recognizing that setbacks are part of the journey toward lasting change.

In 2023, the two sites in Mississippi received recognition as part of a national monument to be managed by the National Park Service. It’s a monumental victory—a victory not just for Weems and his colleagues, but for the nation. These sites, now forming the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument, stand as vital signposts in the cultural and political history of the United States. This designation ensures that the stories embedded in these locations will be preserved, protecting them from vandalism and ensuring that the federal government plays a role in their safeguarding.

Weems's vision extends beyond physical monuments. He believes in the power of education and engagement, collaborating with organizations to create a curriculum and an app that allow for self-guided exploration of Till-related sites. Through youth programs at the courthouse in Sumner, Weems is actively shaping the minds of future generations, ensuring that the lessons from history are not buried but serve as beacons for a more enlightened future.

As a W.K. Kellogg Foundation Fellow and Monument Lab Fellow, Patrick Weems stands as a guide on the road to racial healing. His commitment, resilience, and belief in the transformative power of storytelling are leading Mississippi toward a future where the lessons of the past are not forgotten but woven into the fabric of a more just society.