Each year, the James Beard Foundation awards chefs around the nation with prestigious baking and cooking awards. Many refer to this event as the “Oscars of the food world.” Dolester Miles had already been nominated for Best Pastry Chef twice before, and her place of employment—The Highlands Bar and Grill—had been nominated for Best Restaurant a whopping 10 times, so at this point, the disappointment of loss had worn off and was replaced with the excitement of a short getaway to Chicago.

A Dream Come True

Dolester Miles

But the Alabama chef’s time away from home turned out to be much more than that.

When the nominees for her category were being rattled off, Dolester Miles was not phased. She hadn’t planned an acceptance speech. She had no expectations of bringing home an award. So when her name was called, Dolester, or Dol as she prefers, was thrown into a state of immobilized shock. After being nudged to attention by her friends and co-workers, Dol finally made it to the stage. She thanked the Beard Foundation, her bosses, her crew back home, and was finished in 30-seconds with a sweet “That’s all I got to say.”

Dolester Miles is a little different from many of the nominees in her category. For one, she is a 61-year old woman, entirely self-taught. She has worked at the same restaurant for 36 years. She never set foot in a culinary school, and she never moved across the country– or world– hopping from restaurant to restaurant to get a new perspective on food like so many chefs do. Everything she learned came right from her home in Birmingham Alabama.

Impressive Food, Impressive Character

Food writer and director of the Southern Foodways Alliance in Oxford Mississippi, John T. Edge, has a longstanding love for Dolester Miles’ sweets, but an even greater appreciation for her work ethic. “Miss Miles is a great example of a hard-working culinary professional who has, for three decades, kept her head down, done her work and not sought recognition,” Edge says. “And in this moment when so many chefs look up and look for recognition, her work and her commitment to Birmingham and to Highlands and to the entirety of the broader Highlands enterprise — to me, she is a national standard-bearer.”

Dol didn’t join the culinary industry  for the fame. She cooked because she loved it, and because she wanted to provide for her family. But while the fame wasn’t her means to an end, Dol sure is enjoying it. “I’m in disbelief,” she says, humble as ever. “Me? I mean, it’s amazing. I still don’t believe it. Don’t pinch me and wake me up.”

Want to taste Dolester Miles’ award-winning treats, but can’t get to Birmingham? Try your hand at her personal favorite recipe.

Dolester Miles’ Lemon Meringue Tart

Yield: 10 to 12 servings
Total time: 45 minutes, plus chilling time for and freezing

Dol’s Lemon Meringue Tart

The tart:
1 1/2 cups (191 grams) all-purpose flour
2/3 cup (82 grams) powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup (113 grams) cold unsalted butter (1 stick), cubed
2 egg yolks

The filling and meringue:
4 large eggs
1 1/4 cups (252 grams) granulated sugar
Zest from 2 lemons
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 cup (113 grams) unsalted butter (1 stick), cut into large pieces
4 ounces white chocolate, finely chopped

  1. In the bowl of a food processor, place flour, powdered sugar and salt, and quickly pulse to combine. Add butter and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs, then add egg yolks and pulse until the dough comes together. Form the dough into a disc, wrap in plastic and chill for at least 1 hour.
  2. Heat oven to 350 degrees.
  3. Roll out dough on a lightly floured surface to a thickness of 1/8 inch, then transfer it into a 9 1/2-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Press the dough evenly over the bottom and up the sides of the pan, then trim it by rolling your rolling pin over the top of the tart pan edge. Pierce crust all over with a fork and freeze for 30 minutes. Remove from freezer, place tart pan on a baking sheet, and bake for about 20 minutes until golden. Remove tart from baking sheet and let pan cool slightly on a rack.
  4. Meanwhile, prepare the filling: Separate the eggs, saving 3 of the whites to use in the meringue. In a small saucepan, stir together 1/2 cup (101 grams) granulated sugar, the lemon zest and juice and the egg yolks. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until quite warm. Stir in butter and continue to cook, whisking to prevent burning, for about 7 to 10 minutes or until the mixture becomes thick. Remove from heat and stir in the white chocolate until it melts into the mixture.
  5. Pour lemon mixture through a fine-mesh strainer into a medium bowl and use a spatula to press until just the solids remain. Discard the solids. Spoon mixture into the prepared tart shell and chill for 4 hours.
  6. Make the meringue: Set up a double boiler and bring the water in the bottom pan to a boil over medium-high heat. Combine the 3 egg whites with 3/4 cup (151 grams) granulated sugar in the top of the double boiler and whisk constantly until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is hot.
  7. Pour the meringue mixture into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Whip at medium-high speed for about 2 minutes then increase speed to high and whip for about 4 to 6 minutes more or until the mixture is stiff. Spoon meringue over tart and spread with an offset spatula.
  8. Using a kitchen torch, brown the meringue lightly, holding the torch about 2 inches away from the tart. Alternatively, place tart under a preheated broiler with the oven rack placed 8 inches from the heat source. Broil 30 to 45 seconds, watching carefully so the meringue turns golden brown and does not burn. Remove tart ring and serve immediately.

Dolester Miles shows us that it’s never too late to accomplish our goals. With hard work and perseverance, talent will not go unnoticed. If you keep reaching for the stars, you may eventually become one.