James Beard Foundation Announces Final Nominees

On Monday, March 22, the James Beard Foundation announced the final nominees for the awards it bestows annually. The announcement was made in New Orleans at the Palace Cafe, and Dickie Brennan, one of the restaurant’s owners, announced some of the winners.

The foundation releases a list of semifinalists for nominations before narrowing the field to the folks named Monday, and although not all of the local nominees made the final list, New Orleans was well-represented.

John Besh and Donald Link were nominated in the Cookbooks: American Cooking category: Besh for My New Orleans and Link for Real Cajun. Both books are very personal, with a lot of each chef’s personality expressed in more than the recipes. Both books also combine restaurant-level recipes with more down-home fare, though Link’s trends more toward the latter than Besh’s. Link and Besh have both received James Beard Foundation awards for Best Chef: South in the past and so should be familiar with the process. It’s impossible as a fan of both chefs for me to express a preference, but I certainly hope one of them wins the award.

New Orleans native David Guas, who, I should point out, is my cousin, has been nominated in the Baking and Dessert category for DamGoodSweet: Desserts to Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth, New Orleans Style. Guas, who now practices his trade in Washington, D.C., was born in New Orleans, and his book is an homage both to the Crescent City and to his Cuban heritage. In this category, all journalistic objectivity aside, I am pulling for David to win the day.

The winners in the cookbook and media categories will be announced on May 2, 2010, at Espace in New York City. The next night, the winners in the restaurant and chef categories will be announced at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, also in the Big Apple. Again, a number of local chefs received nods.

One of the most prestigious awards the Beard Foundation grants each year is the Rising Star Chef, and the nominees this year include chefs from some of the most celebrated restaurants in the country, including the French Laundry, Veritas and our own Gautreau’s. Sue Zemanick was named one of the best new chefs of 2008 by Food & Wine Magazine and Chef of the Year by New Orleans Magazine the same year. Zemanick is up against some stiff competition, but she’s an incredibly skilled chef, and it would be not be an upset were she to win.

The Beard Foundation divides the country into geographic regions when awarding certain honors, and Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida and Mississippi fall into the category “South.” This year Scott Boswell of Stella! and John Harris of Lilette have been named finalists for Best Chef: South. Boswell and Harris are both talented but in very different ways.

Boswell’s menu at Stella! changes frequently, and he loves to work with new techniques, ingredients and flavors. He has an affinity for Asian flavors and is one of the few chefs in New Orleans to regularly employ techniques of the molecular gastronomy movement. Stella! is habitually rated one of the best restaurants in New Orleans, and that level of consistent excellence is rewarded by Boswell’s nomination.

Harris’s menu at Lilette has been steadier over the years, with even the daily specials following a regular pattern. Harris turns out refined, stylish food at his Magazine Street restaurant, and his many regulars love the fact that they can order favorite dishes each time they visit. Indeed, they tend to complain bitterly when a regular item is removed from the menu. I know this because one of those bitter complainers is a friend of mine, and I have experienced it firsthand. Harris’ cooking inspires that kind of loyalty.

Finally, Leah Chase, Susan Spicer and Paul C. P. McIlhenny have been inducted into the 2010 James Beard Foundation Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America. Chase, of course, is the legendary owner and chef of Dooky Chase restaurant. Spicer, another past Beard Award winner, is about to open Mondo, a more casual restaurant than her French Quarter stalwart Bayona, and McIlhenny is, of course, the president and CEO of the McIlhenny Co., which produces Tabasco sauce.

Despite the fact that some of the folks nominated above are recognized in the same category, I think it’s fair for locals to hope that they all win. I mean, it’s not realistic. It’s pretty stupid, actually, but that’s not going to stop me.

Your mileage may vary.

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