Get to know Chef Arwen Rice, Mobile's James Beard Awards semifinalist at Red or White

Lifestyle Editor
Posted 2/16/24

It has been nearly three weeks since a text message from a friend notified Arwen Rice that she was one step closer to achieving a bucket list moment.

The shock of being named a James Beard …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Subscribe to continue reading. Already a subscriber? Sign in

Get the gift of local news. All subscriptions 50% off for a limited time!

You can cancel anytime.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Get to know Chef Arwen Rice, Mobile's James Beard Awards semifinalist at Red or White


It has been nearly three weeks since a text message from a friend notified Arwen Rice that she was one step closer to achieving a bucket list moment.

The shock of being named a James Beard Foundation Awards semifinalist for Best Chef: South for her work as executive chef at Red or White is finally subsiding.

"It has been the craziest week and a half of my whole life," Rice said. "Every day people are congratulating me and it is still a shock."

Rice likened the excitement of the community for her nomination to being Mobile's favorite sports team.

"I am their favorite sports team and they are all behind me. Rooting for me," Rice said. "It is the best feeling I could ever imagine; that so many people are so supportive and so excited."

Where She Started

Rice grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Her parents were great cooks and according to Rice, ahead of their time.

"My parents were very into homemade," she said. "My dad, while he didn't do it a lot, when he made bread it was the best thing in the world. He baked a good bit. My mom always had something fresh whether it was a salad or vegetables. We were eating artichokes as kids and that is not even normal today."

Her love of food developed young. She loved to eat and was curious about making food. By fifth grade, Rice knew she wanted to be a chef. Mind you, we are talking about the 1990s before the Food Network made all kids aspire to be "celebrity chefs."

At home, she experimented in the kitchen and was thankful to have a willing taste tester. Rice said her brother would eat anything she made regardless of if it was good or not. She laughed recounting a time when she wanted to make tomato sauce for pasta but could only find tomato paste in the pantry. She mixed it into water with all the normal pasta sauce seasonings and served it over noodles. Her brother gobbled it up as she recalled.

Rice followed her fifth-grade dream to her first restaurant job at 18 and then on to culinary school in Denver, Colorado. It was in Denver that she met and married Shane Rice, a photographer from Bayou La Batre. The creative couple tried to make a go of it in Denver, but the cost of living was too high, so they packed up and moved to Mobile.

Mobile's food scene was a different landscape 16 years ago and it was a shock to Rice's system. Growing up in New Mexico she had access to every cuisine and the same in Colorado. Mobile at that time was lacking.

"I wouldn't call it a food desert, but 16 years ago there was not a lot going on in Mobile cuisine wise that was very interesting," Rice said. "I was kind of in shock the first time we went to brunch. And 16 years ago, I said to myself, 'Man I could do better than this.' I knew what I wanted to eat, and I knew I could give that to people and fill this void."

Filling the Void

Rice may not have been born and raised in Mobile, but she is quick to say there is no place else she would rather cook.

"We are so lucky. I am so glad we moved down here because where else can you go and have this much abundance? Whether it's vegetables, fresh fish, the guy in Citronelle raising pics," Rice said. "You wonder why more people don't open restaurants down here. I would love it if maybe some people would move down here and shake up the food scene a little bit. Make it one of those foodie cities."

She has also enjoyed watching and being a part of the evolution of Mobile's food scene.

"The food scene is so much better than it was 16 years ago," she said. "It is really fun to be a part of that and to be a part of a city where people are excited about the restaurants. People welcome you with open arms for the most part."

When speaking with Rice about her culinary career, she is quick to credit Sherri and Randy Williams, owners of Red or White. Ten years ago, they took a chance and gave Rice her first executive chef position. More importantly, they trusted her to steer the culinary program.

When she got her start at Red or White, the location was tiny and the kitchen even smaller. One of her main kitchen appliances was a toaster over. Compared to the large shop and restaurant diners enjoy now, it was day and night. She and her staff now prepare pizzas and bacon-wrapped dates in an open kitchen with a pizza oven and the main kitchen is tucked away out of view.

Rice said Red or White Mobile had to be patient after they moved. It wasn't busy at the beginning, but they developed a loyal client base that continued to grow.

The menu Rice developed for the restaurant doesn't change much in terms of the dishes, but the ingredients in the dishes change depending on what she can get and what is in season.

Setting the Goal

About five or six years ago, Rice and her sous chef, Zach, set a goal of winning a James Beard Award. She didn't want to go down the route of going to Foundation events or being on cooking shows. She wanted to focus on the food and make it the best it could be.

"If we aren't doing something good enough to be noticed and obviously, the angle for anyone in this industry is to probably get a Michelin star or a James Beard Award," Rice said. "I was like why don't we do what we have got to do to win the whole thing."

Rice decided that if her team could make a better product than they could source then it would be made in-house. Her love of making pasta was a true asset as she began making pasta in-house including ravioli. They brined and smoked their own ham and pastrami and baked bread.

Then her plan got sidelined by a global pandemic. COVID-19 shut the world down. When businesses started opening back up, it was impossible to find staff to hire. Food prices skyrocketed.

Rice and her staff kept working to make the best food possible, but the James Beard Awards were no longer on her radar.

"I didn't even look at the nominations. I couldn't even remember when they came out," Rice said. "My husband got the text message and I clicked on the link and I almost didn't believe it. That is my name. That has been on my bucket list for a very long time and it happened. I was in shock. It is still shocking."

The organic way this nomination came almost makes it better Rice admitted. She and her team kept their nose down, worked hard, and made delicious food for their customers. The fact that their delicious food got on the radar and ultimately the belly of James Beard Board members is just the gravy.

Rice is nominated for Best Chef: South but she is quick to say this isn't just her nomination it belongs to the whole staff.

"Whether it is back of the house or front of the house if the server that served somebody on the board didn't do a good job, then we wouldn't have gotten noticed," Rice said. "Everyone 100% has a hand in this."

Now that the semifinalist list has been released, Rice and her team are focused on continuing to be the best they can be because they never know who may be dining in the restaurant.

The James Beard Awards have an air of mystery and with two months from the announcement of the semifinalists to the finalists, one can only speculate that voting board members could dine at Red or White Mobile. Rice said she and the staff are trying to stay focused on putting out the best food and giving the best service.

"I am planning on doing better than we have ever done and bring it to the next level," Rice said. "I am competitive, and I like to go all the way, and the fact that I made it this far is freaking awesome. We are in it now, so let's go all the way."