The local food world was on the edges of their seats this week, because James Beard Awards released its list of semifinalists for this year. Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, our regular food and wine correspondent, came in to explain who is on the list, how they got there, and why it's important.
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl: The James Beard Foundation is America's pre-eminent organization which recognizes and celebrates the culinary arts. They have a headquarters in New York City, the James Beard House, and from there they host dinners, allowing people from other cities to visit and show what they can do to New Yorkers, and they also grant culinary scholarships and give out awards.
As the Oscars are to the movies, giving a spread-out industry a who's-who of who is out there. This is how people in Los Angeles and New York find out which chefs and restaurants are worth watching in the country at large.
Tom Crann: But there are other awards, Food and Wine magazine, for instance, puts out their own list?
DMG: Just as the Oscars co-exist with the Screen Actors Guild, the Beard Awards co-exist with Food and Wine, Cooking Light, and other food awards, but the semi-finalist list tends to define the playing field for the year.
TC: There are 16 nominations from the Twin Cities this year?
DMG: The big news comes in two chunks. One, La Belle Vie is nominated in two of the most competitive categories — up against places like Chicago's Violet Hour as having the best culinary cocktails in the whole entire country, and the chef Tim McKee of La Belle Vie is up against national figures like Gary Danko and David Chang as being the best chef in the whole entire U.S.
TC: What's the second piece of news you see?
DMG: Just the sheer number of local nominees. We have a record number of nominees in other national categories — Restaurant Alma in the running for Best Restaurant in the country, up against places like Chicago's Tru and New York's Blue Hill, and Sameh Wadi of Saffron up for Rising Star — and a whopping seven nominees in the Best Chef Midwest category.
(For the Beards, the Midwest consists of: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri). We dominate Milwaukee, for instance, with its mere three nominees. This list represents a real sea-change in the national food establishment taking Minnesota seriously.
TC: Why would the Minnesota food scene be taken more seriously now than it was?
DMG: I think what's happening is that food editors are making pilgrimages out here to check out big-buzz restaurants like Travail up in Robbinsdale, and when they come they're spending long weekends eating their way through the major restaurants they hadn't been to before, places like La Belle Vie and Restaurant Alma, and they're realizing that these Minnesota restaurants are far better than they had imagined.
TC: That's why they're on the list — but where are the chefs themselves coming from?
DMG: You know, if you know how to read it, you could actually use this list to construct a history of the last 20 years of dining in the Twin Cities. The D'Amico brothers, Larry and Richard, are up for Outstanding Restaurateur.
DMG: Exactly where Tim McKee got his start, and his 1997 Food and Wine nod as one of the best new chefs in America. Eventually he launched La Belle Vie, where Michelle Gayer was pastry chef — and she's up for Best Pastry Chef this year.
TC: You're saying that it all started with D'Amico Cucina in 1997, and has been building till today?
DMG: And will keep building. There's something special going on in Minnesota right now. I think the day is coming when people will say that in Minnesota all our restaurants are strong, all our plates are good looking, and all our chefs above average.
TC: We'll check back on May 7 when the winners are announced to see if that is what people are saying.