Food Writer's Diary

Observations on the James Beard Foundation Awards semifinalists

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Josh Ozersky did a lot to promote restaurants six years ago, when he leaked the list of semifinalists for the James Beard Foundation Restaurant and Chef Awards.

Up to that point, the list had been an internal document, something for the awards’ several hundred judges to peruse and vote on in order to narrow the list down from more than 400 names (421 this year) to a manageable roster of five or six nominees per category.

But after Ozersky, who at the time was editor of Grub Street, leaked the list, the foundation’s staff figured they might as well go ahead and release it themselves, shining a nice media spotlight on a wide array of deserving contenders.

The list for 2013, released today, can be found here:

Except for the semifinalists for best new restaurants, which by the nature of the award must all be new, roughly half the names on the list, 194 out of 392, are the same as last year.

That has been about par for the course.

So has this: Of the 96 finalists last year, 61 have made the long list this year. There were 20 winners (including a tie between Hugh Acheson and Linton Hopkins for Best Chef in the South), who can’t be nominated again for several years, and 15 nominees who didn’t make this year’s semifinalist list. That doesn’t count David Beran, the chef of Next in Chicago, who did not return to the list of Rising Star Chef semifinalists (for which you have to be age 30 or younger), but who is on the long and very competitive list for Best Chef in the Great Lakes region, which includes Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio and is arguably, this year, the most boring of all the categories: only 6 of the 20 chefs on the long list are new. Apart from Beran, they are Myles Anton of Trattoria Stella in Traverse City, Mich.; Neal Brown of The Libertine Liquor Bar in Indianapolis; Zack Bruell of Cowell & Hubbard in Cleveland; Paul Feribach of Big Jones in Chicago; and, not surprisingly, former Charlie Trotter chef de cuisine Matthias Merges of Yusho in Chicago.

In a three-way tie for fourth-most static categories, with just seven newcomers each, are best chef of the Northwest, Southeast and New York City.

The most dynamic list, probably because of the age restriction, is Rising Star Chef, for which 18 out of 27 semifinalists — two thirds – are new.

But as I said, the whole list is roughly half new.

There aren’t a whole lot of surprises on the list. Many of the newcomers are new ventures of previous winners, such as Grant Achatz’s Aviary in Chicago, which is up for Outstanding Bar Program, or, in that same category, The Bar at the NoMad Hotel, which is run by the team from Eleven Madison Park, who have otherwise pretty much run out of awards to win, which is a shame because they do throw a good Beard Awards afterparty.

Three out of the nine newbies on the nationwide Outstanding Chef list are women — Maria Hines of Tilth in Seattle, Barbara Lynch of No. 9 Park in Boston and Anne Quatrano of Baccanalia in Atlanta — joining Suzanne Goin of Lucques and Nancy Silverton of Pizzeria Mozza, both in Los Angeles, and bringing female representation on that list to 25 percent, which I bet is substantially higher than the percentage of women running kitchens nationally. 

The 12 newcomers to the list of outstanding pastry chef are evenly split between men and women, who join five women and three men who were also on the list last year.

I think the first Puerto Rican eatery ever is on the list for best new restaurant: Mi Casa by José Andrés at Dorado Beach. Jose Enrique, of his eponymous restaurant in San Juan, is on the long list for best chef in the South, making this an unusually good year for Puerto Rico.

Yono’s restaurant in Albany, N.Y., might be the first restaurant in that city to be nominated for outstanding wine program.

Other than that, it’s not a terribly surprising list, but still a nice way to give attention to a bunch of hard-working excellent people.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

 

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Food Writer's Diary is a blog written by Bret Thorn, senior food editor of Nation’s Restaurant News, which covers culinary trends and his adventures.

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Bret Thorn

Bret Thorn is responsible for reporting on culinary trends in foodservice for Nation's Restaurant News. He joined NRN in 1999, after spending about five years as a journalist in Thailand, where...
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