By John Mariani
As the 2012 James Beard Restaurant Awards (on May 4 and 7) approach, here's my third annual handicapping of who I think will win and why.
It's a good year overall for newcomer nominees - chefs who, under the awards' guidelines, "have set new or consistent standards of excellence in their respective regions. Each candidate may be employed by any kind of dining establishment and must have been a working chef for at least the past five years. The three most recent years must have been spent in the region where the chef is presently working."
The regional awards are the toughest to predict because, quite frankly, so few in so many regions are known at all outside their respective cities. In the national categories, like Restaurant of the Year and Outstanding Pastry Chef, the nominees are supposed to be "national standard-bearers," which of course favors chefs in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, especially since the guidelines insist that voters - an amalgam of national and regional food writers and past winners - must swear to have actually eaten at the restaurants in the recent past. As most of the judges rarely get out of the cities they write about, this makes the prospect of a chef from Boulder, Colorado, or Cave Creek, Arizona, obtaining sufficient votes relative to the major cities slim.
Having once been on the Restaurant Awards Committee for several years (two as its chairmen), I continue to commend the members for their hard, honest work. I am often asked how a chef or restaurant can influence the voting, and the answer is, you can't - shy of a publicity barrage that brings a little-known chef to the attention of the committee. Appearances cooking at the Beard House on West 12th Street have no impact.
That said, I'd put my money on these (in bold), where I feel familiar enough with the candidates to choose, after my own annual visits to at least 20 U.S. cities each year.
BEST REGIONAL CHEFS
Great Lakes (IL, IN, MI, OH)
It's baffling why this category is called Great Lakes, when states on the Lakes like New York, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania aren't included. Anyway, Chicago chefs always take the cake in this region, and this year it's star chef Stephanie Izard's turn to win, based on her winning Top Chef on TV and her wildly popular two-year-old gastropub, Girl & the Goat. Michael Carlson, at the tiny experimental restaurant Schwa, has a chance to pull ahead because it might seem his due, but far fewer voters would have eaten at Schwa.
Michael Carlson, Schwa, Chicago
Stephanie Izard , Girl & the Goat, Chicago
Anne Kearney, Rue Dumaine, Dayton, OH
Bruce Sherman, North Pond, Chicago
Andrew Zimmerman, Sepia, Chicago
Mid-Atlantic (D.C., DE, MD, NJ, PA, VA)
Cathal Armstrong is the best known of the crowd, with several restaurants well-regarded in the D.C. area. Somehow I don't think Maricel Presilla of Cuchamara (who?) is on anyone's radar. Pastan at Obelisk hasn't evolved much in the last decade. Vikram Sunderam, however, deserves the award for running the finest Indian restaurant in America.
Cathal Armstrong, Restaurant Eve, Alexandria, VA
Johnny Monis, Komi, Washington, D.C.
Peter Pastan, Obelisk, Washington, D.C.
Maricel Presilla, Cucharamama, Hoboken, NJ
Vikram Sunderam , Rasika. Washington, D.C.
Northeast (CT, MA, ME, NH, NY STATE, RI, VT)
This is an odd geography, with Long Island, New York, lumped in with New England. Boston, of course, gets the lion's share of attention. This one goes to Jamie Bissonette for his corner small-plates trattoria. None of the others have any real name-recognition.
Jamie Bissonnette , Coppa, Boston
Tim Cushman, O Ya, Boston
Gerry Hayden, The North Fork Table & Inn, Southold, NY
Matt Jennings, La Laiterie, Providence, RI
Eric Warnstedt, Hen of the Wood, Waterbury, VT
Midwest (IA, KS, MN, MO, NE, ND, SD, WI)
See my comments on the Great Lakes region, then ask why Indiana and Illinois are not Midwestern states. Oh well. This is always a tough category because next-to-zero of the judges, except for those who live in the Midwest, ever eat in the region. Sanford is a laudable, perennial nominee, but Justin Aprahamian is not as well-known as Colby Garrelts of the lovable Bluestem, who's also announced he will be opening a restaurant in Chicago.
Justin Aprahamian, Sanford, Milwaukee
Gerard Craft, Niche, St. Louis
Colby Garrelts , Bluestem, Kansas City, MO
Tory Miller, L' Etoile, Madison, WI
Lenny Russo, Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct, St. Paul, MN
New York City (Five Boroughs)
This is always the most anticipated category, in which NYC chefs of long standing battle it out in the face of even longer-standing chefs who have gotten or never will get the prize. April Bloomfield is a big favorite among the food-hipster crowd, and Wylie Dufresne is NYC's lone molecular cuisinier. But Michael White now has the clout of an empire of restaurants and plenty of publicity. Unless that works against him, he should take it this year. The brilliant Mark Ladner, meanwhile, still stands in the huge shadow of his employer Mario Batali.
Michael Anthony, Gramercy Tavern
April Bloomfield, The Spotted Pig
Wylie Dufresne, wd-50
Mark Ladner , Del Posto
Michael White, Marea
Northwest (AK, ID, MT, OR, WA, WY)
I'm afraid I don't know enough of these chefs' work to make a good prediction, but the best-known is Jason Franey, and Canlis has earned recognition after so many years.
Matt Dillon, Sitka & Spruce, Seattle
Jason Franey, Canlis, Seattle
Christopher Israel, Gruner, Portland, OR
Naomi Pomeroy, Beast, Portland, OR
Cathy Whims, Nostrana, Portland, OR
Pacific (CA, HI)
Hawaii rarely gets respect in a category clearly dominated by L.A. and San Francisco. Each of the contenders has legions of fans, and Christopher Kostow at Meadowood in Napa Valley has gotten three stars from the Michelin Guide. Michael Chiarello is always a contender, too, and a former TV chef of great depth and breadth. I'm none too sure, but I think it will go to Daniel Patterson, whose Coi is packed nightly to the rafters.
Michael Chiarello , Bottega, Yountville, CA
Chris Cosentino, Incanto, San Francisco
Christopher Kostow, The Restaurant at Meadowood, St. Helena, CA
Matt Molina, Osteria Mozza, Los Angeles
Daniel Patterson, Coi, San Francisco
South (AL, AR, FL, LA, MS)
It's ridiculous that Florida so rarely gets anyone on this regional list, despite its having so many terrific chefs. In any case, the New Orleans nominees, with the exception of Tory McPhail, who I think will get the award, are a good, solid bunch, and while Chris Hastings always makes the list, he can never get enough people to Birmingham to make a dent.
Justin Devillier, La Petite Grocery, New Orleans
John Harris, Lilette, New Orleans
Chris Hastings, Hot and Hot Fish Club, Birmingham, AL
Tory McPhail , Commander's Palace, New Orleans
Alon Shaya, Domenica, New Orleans
Southeast (GA, KY, NC, SC, TN, WV)
A very respectable and diverse list of candidates here, though only High Acheson (who has tremendous TV credit) and Linton Hopkins have real followings. If anyone ever gets to Walland, Tennessee, maybe Lenn will too.
Hugh Acheson, Five and Ten, Athens, GA
Craig Deihl, Cypress, Charleston, SC
Linton Hopkins , Restaurant Eugene, Atlanta
Edward Lee, 610 Magnolia, Louisville
Joseph Lenn, The Barn at Blackberry Farm, Walland, TN
Southwest (AZ, CO, NM, NV, OK, TX, UT)
Bruno Davaillon has worked hard to maintain Dallas's fine-dining segment at the Mansion, and Kevin Binkley is an Arizona star, but way the hell out in Cave Creek. Paul Qui, with a lot of media and PR behind him and a hot city (Austin) as his base (with a branch of Uchiko now in Houston), should grab the prize.
Bruce Auden, Biga on the Banks, San Antonio
Kevin Binkley , Binkley's Restaurant, Cave Creek, AZ
Bruno Davaillon, Mansion Restaurant at the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek, Dallas
Jennifer Jasinski, Rioja, Denver
Hugo Ortega, Hugo's, Houston
Paul Qui, Uchiko, Austin, TX
Best New Restaurant
"A restaurant opened in 2011 that already displays excellence in food, beverage, and service and is likely to have a significant impact on the industry in years to come." That last statement about a "significant impact" is a touchy one, because not all of these restaurants are exciting or innovative enough to suggest that will happen. One might put money on Next in Chicago, but since it's so impossible to get into (remember, voters have to swear they ate at their chosen restaurants), it might not have enough votes. AQ is a big hit in San Francisco but doesn't have much national recognition. Tertulia, with two generous stars from The New York Times, and packed every night with swooning media and out-of-towners, has the spin to give it the best shot. Isa, with only one Times star, is out in Brooklyn and may get the food-dude vote, but I doubt many of those are among the judges.
AQ, San Francisco
Fiola , Washington, D.C.
"A restaurant that demonstrates high standards of hospitality and service. Candidates must have been in operation for at least the past five years." An impossible category because service is such a subjective thing among diners, and because so many bloggers these days have such a viral animus against fine dining. Nevertheless, all the restaurants on this list are very fine dining indeed, and any one of them deserves the award for maintaining its standards. Michael Mina, under its current incarnation, has only been open for a year now. Topolobampo and Spiaggia will split the Chicago vote. Oddly enough, La Grenouille, once notorious for being snooty, is now a retro favorite, and it is in NYC.
Cyrus , Healdsburg, CA
La Grenouille, NYC
Michael Mina, San Francisco
Outstanding Pastry Chef
Another impossible category, not least for its stipulation that the "chef or baker who prepares desserts, pastries, or breads... serves as a national standard-bearer for excellence." Quick, name one pastry chef who has achieved public acclaim. Not one person on this list - sadly the only one with a reasonable number of women - is well-known enough to stir strong feelings as a standard-bearer with national impact. That said, I really can't pick a winner, though chances for Ghaya Oliveira at Daniel Boulud's Boulud Sud (though open less than a year) in NYC are high.
Joanne Chang, Flour Bakery + Cafe, Cambridge, MA
Melissa Chou, Aziza, San Francisco
Hedy Goldsmith, Michael's Genuine Food & Drink, Miami
Dahlia Narvaez, Osteria Mozza, Los Angeles
Ghaya Oliveira, Boulud Sud, NYC
Mindy Segal, Mindy's Hot Chocolate, Chicago
Rising Star Chef of the Year
"A chef age 30 or younger who displays an impressive talent and who is likely to have a significant impact on the industry in years to come." Solely because of media attention as an extension of the Grant Achatz PR machine, Dave Beran will probably take this category, which is pretty weak. Christina Tosi is not chef but patîssier at Momofuku Milk Bar. Food & Wine named Sue Zemanick of Gautreau's one of the year's "10 Best New Chefs" in 2008, so that carries weight.
Dave Beran, Next, Chicago
Daniel Bowien, Mission Chinese Food, San Francisco
Thomas McNaughton, Flour + Water, San Francisco
Christina Tosi, Momofuku Milk Bar, NYC
Sue Zemanick, Gautreau's, New Orleans
"Candidates must have been in the restaurant business for at least 10 years. Candidates must not have been nominated for a James Beard Foundation chef award in the past 10 years." These are quite reasonable criteria, although it reads suspiciously as if it's really for a chef, not a restaurateur. It's a very odd list of names, most of whom are only regionally known. There is always cordial applause for Frank Stitt, but then he's in Birmingham, Alabama, not a city much on voters' bucket lists. No one, however, has done more for Italian cuisine and wine than Piero Selvaggio. Few people know Phil Suarez is the brains and money behind Jean-Georges Vongerichten's empire, so he probably won't register. Caroline Styne, with her partner (why not also listed?) Suzanne Goin, should take this category.
Bruce Bromberg and Eric Bromberg, Blue Ribbon Restaurants, NYC
Tom Douglas, Tom Douglas Restaurants, Seattle
Piero Selvaggio , Valentino, Santa Monica, CA
Caroline Styne, Lucques/A.O.C./Tavern, Los Angeles
Phil Suarez, Suarez Restaurant Group, NYC
Hasn't the ubiquitous media darling David Chang won yet? Hmm. Well, Gary Danko richly deserves it. Daniel Humm has garnered enormous awe as a chef's chef, but this isn't yet his year. Donald Link is the odds-on favorite from the South. Nancy Silverton has the L.A. lobby on her side. And Paul Kahan is a powerhouse in Chicago. Tough decision: I think it will be Kahan's year, even if his influence outside Chicago is slight.
David Chang, Momofuku Ssam Bar, NYC
Gary Danko , Restaurant Gary Danko, San Francisco
Daniel Humm, Eleven Madison Park, NYC
Paul Kahan, Blackbird, Chicago
Donald Link, Herbsaint, New Orleans
Nancy Silverton, Pizzeria Mozza, Los Angeles
This is a curious list. In its own way, the longevity and popularity of Balthazar, though not its brasserie fare, might seem to clinch the race, whereas Boulevard in San Francisco is well-liked but hardly an establishment of power and influence. Blue Hill in Manhattan is a fine enough restaurant, but I suspect it's really on the list because of the extraordinary Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York, which has not been in business long enough to qualify for this category. Again, Frank Stitt's Highlands is in Birmingham, Alabama.
Balthazar , NYC
Blue Hill, NYC
Boulevard, San Francisco
Highlands Bar and Grill, Birmingham, LA
Photo credit: ralph and jenny/Flickr
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