Another year and another list of New Orleans chefs, restaurants and industry folks nominated for James Beard awards. I thought this year I’d give you the list and a few thoughts about each of our local contenders.
Gianna has been nominated in the Best New Restaurant category. It’s a great place and deserving of the honor. Chef Rebecca Wilcomb has family in Italy, and she’s cooking food that respects tradition while still being current. The restaurant is in the Link/Stryjewski/Prewitt family, which should be all you need to know.
Graison Gill has been nominated as Outstanding Baker. He’s the fellow behind Bellegarde Bakery, which recently opened a retail location near Carrollton and Claiborne. Bellegarde’s bread has been showing up on tables at better restaurants for a few years, and it’s good to see the outfit recognized.
You may remember from a paragraph or so ago that I mentioned a restaurant in the Link/Stryjewski/Prewitt family was a mark of quality? I believe this is in no small part because Donald Link is a huge talent in the kitchen. That’s why he’s nominated for Outstanding Chef, but more important, Link is a person who knows good food and recognizes good cooks. I’m biased because I like the guy, but I swear he’s a goddamn prince.
I know this blog reaches people far outside the borders of Orleans (or even Jefferson) Parish, so I will share with those of you not from here a few things about Brigtsen’s. It is a wonderful New Orleans neighborhood restaurant with food that you’d expect to find at a Michelin-starred place in Lyon. Chef Frank Brigtsen runs the kitchen, but his wife and partner, Marna, is the reason the restaurant has been nominated in the Outstanding Hospitality category because she’s the bee’s knees where it comes to front-of-house service. The thing about both of them is that they actually care about their craft, and while it’s possible to fake that sort of enthusiasm over a short period of time, it’s not possible to do it as long as they’ve been running one of the best restaurants in New Orleans (and, thus, the world).
JoAnne Clevenger has been nominated in the Outstanding Restaurateur category, and I don’t think there’s a more deserving human for that honor. I have fond memories of JoAnne telling me that no, they did not have a table at the Upperline that night when I walked in. Fond memories, people; that’s how gracious she is. She has always been a champion of other restaurants and a patron of the arts, and I hope she wins. From what I can tell, she’s the only one nominated who doesn’t have multiple restaurants apart from Ruth Gresser, who runs a pizzeria in D.C., and Jason Wang, who operates Xi’an Famous Foods in NYC. I don’t know anything about Gresser, and I’ve only eaten takeout at Xi’an Famous Foods, but I will go ahead and say that neither of those places are up to Clevenger’s standard.
Bacchanal has been nominated in the category of Outstanding Wine Program, which is pretty freaking cool because it’s a great place and has done a lot to bring appreciation of wine to a number of folks who might not otherwise have learned to appreciate wine. That and it’s a kickass backyard party pretty much every day.
I have actually not been to the restaurant for which Ana Castro has been nominated in the category Rising Star Chef of the Year, which is embarrassing because I really like the chefs who opened the place, Michael Stoltzfus and Kristen Essig, of Coquette fame. It’s Thalia, and from what I’ve heard from people I trust, it’s awesome and a well-deserved nomination. I love that it’s a neighborhood restaurant because that’s the sort of place that makes New Orleans special – and it’s a dying breed. Let’s hope Thalia serves as an inspiration.
Many chefs have been nominated for Best Chef: South. Many chefs. I do not know them all, but I have eaten at all but one of the restaurants as I will note when I discuss them individually (or in pairs, as it happens) below.
I have not been to St. Germain, which is a French wine bar with a separate, reservation-only dining room in the Bywater. I have heard good things, but I do not know the chefs nominated as far as I can remember, and I apologize to both or either of them if I am mistaken.
I have, on the other hand, eaten food prepared by both Michael Stoltzfus and Kristen Essig at various restaurants including Coquette, the restaurant that garnered them the nomination. It’s one of my favorite restaurants in town and a place I have taken more than one person when I wanted to make sure they had a good meal. The thing that I tell people about Coquette – the thing that sold me on Stoltzfus – was a vegetable plate he put out at a fundraiser I attended years ago. It was simple and direct but at the same time sophisticated in the flavors and techniques used. Chef Essig has broadened the menu at Coquette and made what was already a fantastic restaurant better.
I am on record as loving Luvi, for which chef Hao Gong has been nominated in this category. This is a place that serves raw fish in multiple preparations as well as brilliant takes on a few Chinese dishes, most notably the thinly sliced beef shank with chili oil and dumplings made from the chef’s mother’s recipe. Everything I’ve eaten at Luvi has been good, and some of it has been transformative. If you haven’t been, go.
Michael Gulotta has also been nominated in this category for Maypop, his restaurant in the CBD. He could have been nominated for MoPho or for that matter during his time running the kitchen at August. I can’t argue with the folks who chose Maypop, though, because it’s a spectacular place and Gulotta and his team are doing great things there. If nothing else, a restaurant that makes the connection between the deltas of the Mississippi and the Mekong is worthy of recognition.
I got to meet Mason Hereford back when he was at Coquette and then I went to his restaurant Turkey and the Wolf right after it opened. This was before it became a thing, by which I mean it was within 24 hours of the place opening. Mason is one of the nicest guys you’ll meet, and by God the food he and his team are putting out at that casual little joint will slay you. Turkey and the Wolf received early accolades and some pushback from it, but if you’ve been, you understand why the place has been so consistently popular. The food is delicious.
What is there to say about Isaac Toups? He’s a personality! He’s bald! He can cook like a house on fire, and he and his wife, Amanda, have been putting out incredible food at Toups’ Meatery for several years. This is not shy food; it is not for the meek or the vegetarian; and it’s true to Toups’ South Louisiana background, if a bit gussied up. I’ve been around long enough to have met Toups before he opened his restaurants, and he was a great cook then, too. When I recommend restaurants to folks, I almost always include the Meatery because it’s awesome, and I know folks I send there will enjoy the experience. Unless they’re vegan, and maybe even then…