Decorated Biloxi chef to share secrets of shrimp and grits at Catfish Row Museum

Published 4:57 pm Wednesday, June 12, 2024

By Jim Beaugez

Of all the staple dishes served at local restaurants throughout the Gulf South and the lowcountry along the Atlantic Coast, shrimp and grits may be the most beloved. 

Every Southern coastal eating establishment worth its sea salt boasts its own spin on the popular dish. And Saturday, chef Austin Sumrall of White Pillars restaurant in Biloxi is ready to show the culinary-curious how to make their own versions at home.

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“Shrimp and grits is a comfort food for a lot of people, and something you can do a million different ways,” said Sumrall, who will deliver his talk and cooking demonstration at Catfish Row Museum June 15 at 2 p.m. “It’s almost like gumbo, where everybody’s version is slightly different.”

Sumrall will discuss the local-first approach he brings to the coastal cooking scene at White Pillars, using shrimp and grits as his demo subject because it’s something people could easily replicate at home. “A lot of our recipes are pretty complicated, mostly in that the products in them are pretty hard to get, and then the processes take multiple days,” he said.

Still, making shrimp and grits exactly like Sumrall will require a little footwork. Sumrall relies on local ingredients sourced on and near the coast, such as local shrimp and mushrooms, as well as fresh grits made from corn grown in Mississippi and ground locally to order on an antique grinder between two large stones.

“At White Pillars, we do farm-to-table, local, seasonal cuisine,” Sumrall said. “Our menu is kind of a global cuisine through a Southern lens. We do stuff from all over the world, but it always has something that ties it back to the South.”

A native of McComb, Sumrall graduated from the University of Mississippi with a degree in hotel and restaurant management and later received culinary training at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park in upstate New York. In 2016, Sumrall and his wife, Tressa, moved to Biloxi and began building a menu manifesto designed to express the flavors of the local region.

“We don’t really do signature dishes,” he said. “Our menu changes every day, and we change with the seasons, so it depends on what’s fresh and what our farmers have. We’ve actually put three new dishes on the menu just this week.”

If the name White Pillars sounds familiar, it should. In 1969, a restaurant of the same name opened in the exact location along Biloxi’s waterfront, a building that was originally a home built in 1905. The original White Pillars remained open until 1989, and the building sat empty for nearly 30 years until the Sumralls opened their restaurant under the same name in 2017. But the similarities between the two restaurants end there — after working at restaurants in Birmingham, Ala., and New Orleans, the Sumralls were determined to bring their own vision to life, not ride on someone else’s coattails.

Instead of recreating the menus of the past, they chose to honor the legacy of the White Pillars name with aesthetic flourishes like wall coverings that feature patterns pulled from a period- appropriate throw pillow, as well as filling the restaurant with antique furniture.

Since opening White Pillars, Sumrall has racked up fans as well as honors. He’s been a semi-finalist for the Best Chef South category in the James Beard Foundation’s annual awards, and he won the acclaimed Great American Seafood Cook-off in New Orleans in 2021. In May 2023, he competed for and won the “Southern Comfort” episode in season three of the Food Network TV show “Alex vs America,” a high-stakes cooking competition pitting expert chefs against powerhouse chef Alex Guarnaschelli.