While neither of the two Charleston-based finalists won James Beard Foundation awards Monday, locals may recognize one top winner of the event regarded as the Oscars of the food world.
Ashley Christensen, the celebrity chef and restaurateur based in Raleigh, won the national award for Outstanding Chef. Christensen, of Poole’s Diner in Raleigh, is a frequent guest at the Charleston Wine + Food festival and other culinary events in the Lowcountry.
In her 5-minute speech, Christensen expressed gratitude to her 270 employees and her many mentors across the South.
“We want to make this industry a place where you want your children to work. We invite you, all of you, to join us in this mission," she said to the crowd. "Life is rich and full. Don’t forget kindness, and we’ll see you on the dance floor tonight."
Winners were announced after 10 p.m. EST Monday during the 2019 James Beard Awards Gala at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. It was hosted by Jesse Tyler Ferguson, the actor known for starring on “Modern Family.” The ceremony was streamed live on Twitter.
Mashama Bailey of The Grey in Savannah, Ga., won the Best Chef: Southeast award, which last year went to Rodney Scott of Rodney Scott’s BBQ.
In her speech, Bailey credited legendary chef Edna Lewis, who once oversaw the culinary program at Middleton Place, as an inspiration, saying she’s “ripped off all of her tricks.”
“We are moving the country forward,” Bailey said, saluting fellow nominees.
Kelly Fields, who grew up in Charleston, of Willa Jean in New Orleans won the award for Outstanding Pastry Chef.
And, in a win long-awaited across the South, Oxford, Miss., chef Vishwesh Bhatt took the Outstanding Chef: South prize.
“Let us be sure we are not excluding people,” Bhatt said in a speech acknowledging the recent movement to honor chefs according to their various racial backgrounds.
FIG was up for the national award for Outstanding Restaurant, which recognizes a restaurant “that demonstrates consistent excellence in food, atmosphere, service and operations” and has been in business for at least 10 years. It went to Zahav, a restaurant based in Philadelphia.
Other finalists included Balthazar in New York City; Jaleo in Washington, D.C.; and Quince in San Francisco. Last year, FIG won the national award for Outstanding Wine Program and had previously won Best Chef: Southeast for Chefs Mike Lata in 2009 and Jason Stanhope in 2015. This year marked its first time being named a finalist in the Outstanding Restaurant category.
When the nomination was announced in late March, Lata of FIG called it "the ultimate honor."
Ann Marshall and Scott Blackwell of High Wire were nominated in the Outstanding Wine, Spirits, or Beer Producer category. That award went to Rob Tod of Allagash Brewing Company in Portland, Me.
Others in the finalist field included Cathy Corison of Corison Winery in St. Helena, Calif.; Steve Matthiasson of Matthiasson Wines in Napa, Calif.; and Lance Winters of St. George Spirits in Alameda, Calif.
The couple who founded High Wire called themselves "underdogs" in the category.
“It’s pretty cool to be on that list,” Blackwell said in late March. “It feels scrappy. It’s like, ‘Yeah, Charleston is small, but it’s pretty cool.’ It’s obviously a huge honor. It makes us feel pretty warm inside.”
For the full list of awards, visit jamesbeard.org.