Lincoln Center, New York—On a rainy night in Manhattan, after a years-long drought of a different sort, a Twin Cities chef took home a James Beard Award tonight—La Belle Vie’s Tim McKee beat out 112 Eatery’s Isaac Becker, Restaurant Alma’s Alexander Roberts, and two Missouri chefs for the honors of Best Chef Midwest.
McKee graciously, but haltingly, accepted the award from celebrity chef Todd English, who, for the second year in a row, embarrassingly mangled a succession of nominee names, repeatedly referring to McKee as “McKay.” Best Chef Great Lakes winner Michael Symon (Lola, Cleveland) gave English a smart kick in the pants, referring to him as Todd “Anglish” in his acceptance speech.
McKee, in the panic of the moment ("It was the most nervous I've even been," he told me.) forgot to mention his longtime partner, Josh Thoma, yet did manage to get in shout-outs to his kitchen team at Belle Vie, Solera, his yet-to-open restaurant at the Guthrie Theater, and even partner Shawn Smalley , who runs the duo’s barbecue restaurant in Stillwater, though McKee had a bit of trouble remembering the restaurant’s name (Smalley’s Caribbean BBQ).
The win overcomes years of frustration for local chefs, first in a Midwest category dominated by Chicago chefs with greater visibility among the universe of judges, and then in a Chicago-free category dominated by Minneapolis nominees who evidently split the votes, ceding the award to lesser chefs from KC or Milwaukee.
Common wisdom holds that McKee’s (and partner Josh Thoma ’s) ambitious 2008 and plans for even more growth in 2009 made him the inevitable choice among judges who vote in this category. (Yours truly being one of them.) Beard judges are forbidden from voting for a chef whose food they haven’t eaten, and the assumption is most East and West Coast judges (and many Chicago judges) don’t vote in the Midwest category due to a complete unfamiliarity with the chefs and restaurants.
Other winners of regional interest include Paul Bartolotta, of the legendary Milwaukee family of restaurateurs, for his Las Vegas restaurant Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare at the Wynn Resort.
There were no Twin Cities nominees or winners this year in the Beard media/journalism awards, though Duluth cookbook author Beatrice Ojakangas was nominated for her cookbook The Best Casserole Cookbook Ever, but did not win.
The ceremonies wrapped up after the typical 3:30 runtime, the crowd at Avery Fisher Hall disgorging into lobbies set up with gourmet bites prepared by past, present, and future Beard winners. Among the grazers was Mario Batali, Rick Bayless, Daniel Boulud, Jean George Vongerichten, and other luminaries.