The nominations for the 2020 James Beard awards are out and Greenville has had two nominees, Oak Hill Café for Best New Restaurant and Chef Adam Cooke for Best Chef in the Southeast. And to folks that love a great meal, this is very good news. The Beard awards are unlike other restaurant/hospitality awards and allow me to explain why they’re so important.
Who or what is a James Beard Award?
First a bit of background on James Beard. He was, without a doubt, our country’s first foodie. Prior to World War Two he owned a small catering company in Portland, Oregon and published his first cookbook. After the war his writing career took off and he was soon consulting, hosting the first cooking TV show and eventually a small restaurant in Nantucket. He went on to write 20 cookbooks and he was the first national figure to champion American food and the American chef. When he passed away in 1985, his home in NYC became the headquarters of the James Beard Society, ground zero for American cuisine and a place to celebrate the American chef.
The Beard Awards began in 1990 and have since blossomed into the premier hospitality awards on our planet. Indeed, a James Beard award can set a chef up for a very lucrative career of cookbooks, consulting, and appearances. However, before anyone receives their award, one must first be nominated. And that’s the $64,000 question, how does one receive a nomination? The Beard Awards are not a popularity contest so there’s no stacking the deck by purchasing thousands of copies of their journal. And the influential members are by and large chefs like me, high caliber food writers and most importantly, past winners.
Over the years the awards have expanded and include such categories as Outstanding Bar Program, Best Baker, and Outstanding Hospitality. Because the awards encompass the entire country, the society must depend on people in their inner circle to call attention to a previously unheralded restaurant or up and coming chef. The Best Chef awards are separated by geographies. Adam Cooke received a nomination for Best Chef, Southeast, which includes Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, North and South Carolina. So, he’s up against chefs in Charleston, Asheville, Charlotte, Raleigh/Durham, Louisville, etc. Those Best Chef awards (there’s 12 geographic regions) start with 20 semi-finalists then get winnowed down to five finalists. And the winner is announced at a gala in NYC with (hopefully) all the finalists in attendance.
What it takes to win
In order to make it to a finalist, the Chef’s cooking must have a clear voice, a sense of place and a commitment to culinary excellence that is appropriate given his restaurant’s ethos. In other words, jumping from Indian to Italian cuisine at a restaurant named Uncle Joe’s Old Timey Apple Shed won’t get you there. Between now and the finalist announcement, Topsoil will probably be visited by maybe a dozen folks intimately involved with the society and they’ll convene and discuss the pros and cons of each Chef in that region. And that’s where it gets tricky because who are these folks? Well you’re not supposed to know because that could lead to all sorts of bribery and skullduggery, but I do know that a past winner’s vote carries a lot of weight.
If Adam’s got a couple of past winners in his corner, that might get him to the finals. We’ve eaten at Topsoil several times and we’ve enjoyed it however I’m not familiar enough with his competition to have a sense of where he stands. I do believe that Topsoil has a modern ethos that’ll serve it well when the next round of voting is done and Adam’s work at the culinary fortress of the southeast, Blackberry Farm, is likely still held in high esteem within the society. Although lately the society has had a fascination with BBQ in the south (big surprise, right?) and there’s two BBQ Chefs/restaurants on his list.
What can Adam do between now and the next round of voting? Simple. Cook his ass off. Because he won’t get notice that a potential society member is on the way and he’ll have to treat everyone like they’re the most important diner in the world. And although this award goes to one chef, it’s a huge boost for every team member. If a cook, bar tender, or front staff member spends two years working at a nominated restaurant, that opens a lot of doors down the road and can also generate a lot more business, and potentially better business in the form of higher check averages.
Now on to Oak Hill and their nomination for Best New Restaurant.
This is a national category that includes Puerto Rico and they’ve had to stand out amongst every aspirational restaurant that’s opened in 2019. They’re up against restaurants in NYC, Portland, Oregon, Santa Monica, San Francisco, DC, San Juan, Boston and so on. And I like their chances of getting to the next round. Chef David Porras and owner Lori Nelsen have an intriguing background story. David has a cool, curious approach to his food and his soft sell to molecular gastronomy I find unique. They’ve also got a solid wine list that works well with his style of cooking, tableware by a local potter, and a large garden out back. Between now and the next round of voting I would assume they’ll consider every aspect of their operation and look for ways to hone and polish their standards. Because again, they won’t know when the next influential society member will walk through their door. Bottom line is both restaurants have aspired to an incredible level of professionalism and culinary standards. Just reaching the semifinals requires a tenacious approach to the daily rigors of the business and rigorous culinary standards. I’m proud of them both and wish them the best of luck come March 25th.
John Malik, while Chef/Owner of Greenville’s 33 Liberty Restaurant, received a James Beard nomination for Best Chef in the Southeast in 2008.