Earlier this month on May 6, the winners of the prestigious James Beard Foundation Awards for Best Chef and Best Restaurant categories were announced at a glitzy, glam gala in Chicago. Regional wins went to Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark of Parachute (Chicago), Tom Cunanan of Bad Saint (Washington, D.C.), Ann Kim of Young Joni (Minneapolis), Jody Williams and Rita Sodi of Via Carota (New York City), Tony Messina of Uni (Boston), Brady Williams of Canlis (Seattle), Vishwesh Bhatt of Snackbar (Oxford, Mississippi), Mashama Bailey of The Grey (Savannah, Georgia), Charleen Badman of FnB (Scottsdale, Arizona), and Michael Cimarusti of Providence (Los Angeles).
This was a transformational year for the Foundation. Under the new stewardship of CEO Clare Reichenbach, sweeping policy changes went into effect that address transparency and inclusiveness in the judging and awards process. The measures were adopted to “increase gender, race, and ethnic representation in the governance and outcomes of the Awards” according to a statement. The Foundation has received criticism for the perception of disproportionately honoring white male chefs in the past.
“At the beginning of the nomination process [in 2018] we introduced a new yardstick in terms of CHARACTER and CONDUCT," Reichenbach told media last fall. "And you could really see that come to bear this year. So I think it’s about saying, 'Progress has been has been made. Let's not rest on our laurels. Let's make sure that we build on this.'"
What do the menus of these newly-minted James Beard Award winners of “Best Chefs in America” 2019 tell us about breaking barriers, embracing change and diversity, honoring the virtues of tradition, and recognizing professional responsibility to each other and the environment? Some clues can be found in a few notable dishes.
Best Chef: Great Lakes (IL, IN, MI, OH)
Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark
The owners describe their food as American-Korean. Tempura Shiso Leaves with Bourbon-barrel Soy embody that cuisine description.
Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic (DC, DE, MD, NJ, PA, VA)
Chef Cunanan brings place to tradition by adding Chesapeake crab and kale to Bad Saint’s signature Filipino Laing coconut milk stew.
Best Chef: Midwest (IA, KS, MN, MO, NE, ND, SD, WI)
Young Joni serves American food, as Korean immigrant Chef Ann Kim observes it in current times. Her This Lamb is your Lamb pizza could not be more of an example of edible inclusiveness.
Best Chef: New York City (Five Boroughs)
Jody Williams and Rita Sodi
The old and the new, nostalgic and novel, owners and life partners Williams and Sodi explore powerful connections between food and people. A celebration of raw materials and comfort is found in a classic Cacio e pepe.
Best Chef: Northeast (CT, MA, ME, NH, NY State, RI, VT)
Tony Messina of Uni has received accolades from other entities. In October 2018, Boston Magazine named Uni as the number one restaurant in the city and claims “Right now, Boston dining — the entire city, really — is defined by tension between old and new. Let’s look to Uni for guidance.” Spanish Sea Bass Sashimi paired with Moroccan chermoula offers an atypical sushi experience.
Best Chef: Northwest (AK, ID, MT, OR, WA, WY)
The Canlis family, owners of the restaurant for three generations, has put its vision for the future in the hands of Brady Williams. Malted Barley Pancake with Fermented Cabbage and Sauce "Pierre”, classic components, modern inspiration.
Best Chef: South (AL, AR, PR, FL, LA, MS)
Chef Bhatt has found the connections between equatorial ingredients like chilis, mustard, and cumin from his Indian homeland and the American South. Okra Chaat takes a stroll through the quintessential Southern town square of Oxford, Mississippi by way of Gujarat, India.
Best Chef: Southeast (GA, KY, NC, SC, TN, WV)
In 2018, TIME Magazine declared The Grey to be one of the best 100 places in the world. The former segregated Greyhound bus depot turned restaurant offers a “familiar and elevated” Foie Gras with Grits and Red Wine Gravy that Chef Bailey garnishes with mostarda and onions.
Best Chef: Southwest (AZ, CO, NM, OK, TX, UT)
Chef Badman, affectionately known as “the Veggie Whisperer”, is devoted to the ingredients of her Southwest roots. Grilled asparagus, crispy polenta, fried egg, Chiltepin and pecorino pay homage to the only wild chile native to the US.
Best Chef: West (CA, HI, NV)
Los Angeles, CA
Disciplines of classic “old school” training bring refinement and elegance to the seafood-centric menu. Chef Cimarusti, with his fondness for angling and the sea brings that reverence to fish cookery. The restaurant is guided by a principle of sustainability, evidenced in a seasonal spring preparation of California Troll-Caught King Salmon Fava Beans, Asparagus and Rhubarb.
These award-winning chefs have crafted menus that are inclusive as well. Through the menu narrative they embrace stories of place, perseverance, and personal history. Contemporary dishes speak to an acknowledgement of individual heritage and history, of generations and traditions that have developed into current foodways. Classic preparations recognize the culinary competence, skill, and dedication to the technique, toil, and training necessary to achieve such prestigious recognition. The menus feature regional ingredients that tell of land, sea and provenance, and demonstrate these chefs’ commitment, gratitude, and connection to those who grow, catch, and raise the food they feature in their restaurants.
These chefs’ menus are an ode to the possible, to the optimism of “what if?” and the notion that something unheard of or so beyond culinary and even social paradigms could actually succeed and be enjoyed and celebrated.
Chef Mary Howley is the culinary consultant to the RCS Hospitality Group and a former Executive Chef of her own catering company, several country clubs, and fine dining restaurants. She studied throughout Europe and honed her skills on the East Coast working with a myriad of culinary styles. She had the honor to serve as research and development chef for Food Unlimited, and held the position of Pastry Chef in two James Beard Dinner Events.
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