Eclectic mix of restaurants, chefs are vying for awards

CHICAGO (AP) — From Seattle pho shops to an East African eatery in Detroit, an eclectic mix of restaurants and chefs are vying for the coveted James Beard Awards, which will be announced Monday at a ceremony in Chicago.

More than 100 restaurants are finalists in 22 categories for the culinary world’s equivalent of the Oscars. Just being a finalist can bring wide recognition and boost business. The most anticipated categories include awards for outstanding restaurateur, chef and restaurant.

“People are working hard to make things happen and they know that this can be a game-changer,” said Tanya Holland, chair of the awards committee.

Restaurants apply for the awards. Judges, who mostly remain anonymous, try the cuisine before voting. Nominees are reviewed for the food as well as for a behavioral code of ethics, including how employees are treated.

Hamissi Mamba and Nadia Nijimbere, who fled Burundi about a decade ago and now own Baobab Fare in Detroit, are among five finalists in the outstanding restaurateur category. The couple faced a difficult road as refugees opening a business in the U.S.

Their restaurant’s menu features kuku, pan-fried chicken in a tangy mustard-onion sauce that’s served with fried plantains, stewed yellow beans and coconut rice. Mamba said the nomination is already a win for them because they can inspire others.

“We are so happy with this,” said Mamba. “Hey, if Mamba and Nadia made it, you, too, can.”

A Seattle family credited with bringing the first pho shop to the city in the 1980s is also a finalist for outstanding restaurateur with a trio of pho restaurants and a chicken and rice shop called The Boat.

Yenvy Pham, whose parents opened their first restaurant after immigrating from Vietnam, calls a bowl of their pho, with its beefy bone broth and anise and clove aromatics, “the foundation” of their cooking. They make the soup fresh every day over 24 hours.

“We just really love what we do,” she said.

The other restaurateur finalists are Chris Viaud with three restaurants in New Hampshire, Hollis Wells Silverman with the Eastern Point Collective that runs several Washington, D.C., restaurants, and Erika and Kelly Whitaker for restaurants in Boulder, Colorado.

The James Beard Foundation has bestowed awards since 1991, except in 2020 and 2021 when the organization scrapped them as the restaurant industry was reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic. The foundation was also facing criticism over a lack of racial diversity and allegations about some nominees’ behavior. Foundation officials vowed to improve ethical standards and be more “reflective of the industry.”

Some of this year’s finalists are already lauded, including Michael Rafidi, whose Washington, D.C., restaurant Albi was awarded a coveted Michelin Star in 2022. He is among five finalists for outstanding chef.

Albi, which is Arabic for “my heart,” pays homage to Rafidi’s Palestinian roots by using Old World food preparation techniques. Everything is cooked over charcoal, including grape leaves stuffed with lamb and sfeeha, a meat pie.

“The idea of showcasing Palestinian cooking on a different level and different light is something that excited me,” he said.

Other outstanding chef finalists include David Uygur for Lucia in Dallas, Sarah Minnick for Lovely’s Fifty Fifty in Portland, Oregon, Dean Neff of Seabird in Wilmington, North Carolina, and Renee Touponce for The Port of Call in Mystic, Connecticut.


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