Charleston last week scored a record 11 mentions on the James Beard Foundation Awards’ semifinalist list, putting it in the company of cities such as New Orleans, which racked up 12 representatives.
Since supplying just two semifinalists in 2010, including Best Chef-Southeast award winner Sean Brock, Charleston has annually provided the prestigious competition with five or six semifinalists.
Many of this year’s honored chefs and restaurants are veterans of the long list, which functions primarily as a coming attraction for the final nominations, to be released on March 24. But there are a few notable newcomers, including Edmund’s Oast in the Best New Restaurant category; Ari Kolender, cited for his work at Leon’s Oyster Shop in the Rising Star division; and Jason Stanhope, a semifinalist for Best Chef-Southeast.
Chef Robert Stehling of Hominy Grill won that prize in 2008, kicking off Charleston’s remarkable three-peat. His restaurant this year appears on the list of aspiring Outstanding Restaurant nominees, alongside Birmingham’s Highlands Bar and Grill, Seattle’s Canlis and New York City’s Per Se. The mention portends another impressive year for the staunchly Southern restaurant, which last month landed on Eater’s list of the 38 most essential restaurants in the U.S.
Lauren Mitterer of WildFlour Pastry also has previously been recognized by the James Beard Foundation, but it’s her (and everyone else’s) first time being considered for the title of Outstanding Baker, an award making its debut in 2015. From the looks of the semifinalists, it ought to be a fun category: Unlike other recent additions, such as Outstanding Bar Program, the pool of potential winners isn’t concentrated in big cities. Mitterer is up against bakers from longtime whole-grain bastions, such as Northhampton, Mass.; Portland, Maine; and Boise, Idaho. (Savannah’s Cheryl and Griffith Day also made the cut.) So what else can be gleaned from the list? Not much, really: The document functions best as a traveler’s guide to the 200-plus U.S. restaurants worth visiting.
Finalists usually stay finalists until they win (or hang up their aprons), so Sean Brock is likely to again make the jump to the last round of the national Outstanding Chef competition. FIG has a good shot at returning to the Outstanding Wine Program shortlist. This year, McCrady’s, longlisted last year for service, an honor that this year went to Charleston Grill, is among its fellow semifinalists.
But year-to-year consistency could make it hard for the highly deserving Stanhope to crack the shortlist on his first try, since all of the 2014 Best Chef-Southeast finalists are back in contention, with the exception of Ashley Christensen, who won the award. The bigger group of semifinalists looks pretty much the same as last year, with The Macintosh’s Jeremiah Bacon and Two Boroughs Larder’s Josh Keeler rounding out the Charleston crew. (The Grocery’s Kevin Johnson was inexplicably left off the current list.)
The only other slip-offs were Colin Bedford of The Fearrington House Restaurant and Scott Crawford of the Umstead Hotel. But North Carolina is home to two of the strongest additions to this year’s list: John Fleer and Katie Button, both of Asheville. Kevin Gillespie of Gunshow is the other new name, making the competition for perhaps just one open finalist seat awfully intense.
One category in which consistency doesn’t apply is Best New Restaurant, since there’s no such thing as a repeat nominee. Edmund’s Oast is up against such talked-about restaurants as Kachka in Portland, Petit Trois in Los Angeles, Lazy Bear in San Francisco and Abe Fisher in Philadelphia. What might work in Edmund’s favor, though, is its relative longevity: Judges are only allowed to vote for restaurants at which they’ve actually eaten.
Since Minneapolis’ Spoon and Stable opened in November, and Savannah’s The Grey opened in December, it’s hard to fathom many judges have yet made their requisite visits. Edmund’s, by contrast, was up and running during last year’s Charleston Wine + Food Festival, annually attended by many writers with voting privileges. And the festival comes around again before judges have to cast their votes. Still, a betting man would probably steer clear of this category entirely.
The James Beard Foundation awards will be announced on May 4. The semifinalist list is at jamesbeard.org.