Photo by Caitlin Abrams
Ooh! Let the chatter begin. The James Beard Awards Semifinalist list is out. This of course is the long, long list of all the nominees, about 80% of which will be cut before awarding the most important and prestigious medals in food. What do I read, when I read them?
First, the big news: Diane Yang of Spoon and Stable is up for ‘Best Pastry Chef.’ This is a big honking deal, it means that Yang has, for the first time, come to the notice of the NYC establishment. If I remember correctly, this is the first time a local has been nominated in the national category. Congrats Diane!! Even if she gets dropped from the next round, which is likely because most of the voters are from the coasts and will only vote for people whose restaurants they have eaten in, this is a big career-maker for her. She’s likely to start getting recruited for big Las Vegas jobs and all the rest. Go Diane go! Woot!!
Next, someone at the top finally got our wonderful and brilliant baker Michelle Gayer of Salty Tart out of the chef category and into the national ‘Outstanding Baker’ category, where she is now up against another hometown hero, John Kraus of Patisserie 46 (and the coming Rose Street Patisserie). If there was any justice in the world they’d both end up on the final list, and the USA would finally acknowledge what we all know: our Mill City is one of the baking capitals of the world. Congrats to Gayer and Kraus, we are grateful you work your magic around here. And if anyone in driving distance of those two bakeries hasn’t been yet, know that you are living among miracles, and ignoring them.
Finally, the big horse race locally: ‘Best Chef: Midwest.’ Who will join Tim McKee, Alex Roberts, and Isaac Becker as holder of that top crown? Here’s the long list, in full:
Best Chef: Midwest
Paul Berglund, The Bachelor Farmer, Minneapolis
Thomas Boemer, Corner Table, Minneapolis
Mike Brown, Bob Gerken, and James Winberg, Travail Kitchen & Amusements, Robbinsdale, MN
Justin Carlisle, Ardent, Milwauke
Jim Christiansen, Heyday, Minneapolis
Dan Fox, Heritage Tavern, Madison, WI
Jorge Guzman, Surly Brewing Co., Minneapolis
Thomas Hauck, c. 1880, Milwaukee
Jonathan Hunter, Forequarter, Madison, WI
Jonathan Justus, Justus Drugstore, Smithville, MO
Russell Klein, Meritage, St. Paul, MN
Francesco Mangano, Osteria Papavero, Madison, WI
Kevin Nashan, Sidney Street Café, St. Louis
Ben Poremba, Elaia, St. Louis
Mike Randolph, Público, University City, MO
Lenny Russo, Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market, St. Paul, MN
Patrick Ryan, Port Fonda, Kansas City, MO
David Swanson, Braise, Milwaukee
Joe Tripp, Alba, Des Moines, IA
Kevin Willmann, Farmhaus, St. Louis
Big honor, obviously. Congrats to Paul Berglund, Thomas Boemer, the Travail crew, Jim Christiansen, Jorge Guzman, Russell Klein, and Lenny Russo. Now, get out your racing forms. Here are my picks for the shortlist:
1) Lenny Russo of Heartland; founding father of northern locavorism, and he’s been a bridesmaid so many times people will feel embarrassed for not having recognized him in the past. Plus he has a new cookbook out, and if he’s smart about publicity, NYC will be flooded with the things.
2) Justin Carlisle of Ardent; great chef, and with only three of the nominees from Milwaukee, which has a lot of voters, compared to Minnesota’s seven nominees, the odds start stacking his way.
3) Kevin Willmann of Farmhaus; he's one of the most important chefs in the history of St. Louis, and the fact that he doesn’t have one yet is criminal. St. Louis’s five nominees might work against him if St. Louis splits its vote, but if there’s a St. Louis consensus, he could be a shoe-in.
I can’t and won’t weigh in on the rest of the local nominees—great chefs all, great restaurants all. And now my advice, purely to the nominees: It’s a huge honor. Celebrate now. Don’t take anything going forward as if you “lost.” You’re all doing amazing work, and we’re lucky to live in the world with you. This may be the one day of the year you get to hear that we think so, congrats! You rock.