Stanhope Best Chef Southeast Beard Award a first for FIG exec

Stanhope

First-time James Beard Foundation award finalist Jason Stanhope of FIG on Monday night bested four chefs with a collective total of 11 prior nominations to claim the Best Chef Southeast prize.

“This is the most incredible feeling I’ve ever had,” Stanhope said in his acceptance speech. “I’m shaking right now.”

It’s standard practice in upscale restaurants associated with big-name chefs for a chef de cuisine to handle the day-to-day work of running the kitchen. But it’s highly uncommon for his or her boss to hand down the title of executive chef, as Mike Lata did last year. Only executive chefs are considered for the prestigious award.

After thanking his family, Stanhope thanked Lata and partner Adam Nemirow for empowering him to mesh technical cuisine with unpretentious service and to hire “people who are better than I am.”

Lata in 2009 won the Best Chef Southeast award, making FIG the only restaurant in the region to ever produce two different James Beard Award winners in the same category. Lata’s win, which came after two previous nominations, was sandwiched between Best Chef Southeast awards for Hominy Grill’s Robert Stehling and McCrady’s Sean Brock. (Brock’s enthusiastic acceptance speech opener, which can’t be reprinted in this newspaper, was included in a video montage at the ceremony’s start and quoted by Stanhope.)

Brock this year was nominated for the title of Outstanding Chef, but lost to Michael Anthony of New York City’s Gramercy Tavern, a chef familiar to Charlestonians from his 2014 Charleston Wine + Food guest stint at FIG. Anthony is also head chef of Untitled at the newly-relocated Whitney Museum, which opened this weekend.

No chef from a restaurant south of Washington, D.C., has ever claimed the national prize. Observers speculated Brock’s chances might have been hurt by the nomination of New Orleans’ Donald Link, which may have split the organization’s Southern voting bloc. Brock last month received a James Beard Foundation award in the separate Book, Broadcast and Journalism division for his cookbook, “Heritage.”

Cookbooks generally correlate with award wins, but didn’t have much bearing on the Best Chef Southeast category this year.

Steven Satterfield of Atlanta was considered a favorite — largely on the strength of “Root to Leaf,” released this year – but first-time finalists Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman of Memphis and Edward Lee of Louisville are also published authors.

While Stanhope’s win ends a five-year Beard drought for Charleston, the city still hasn’t received any awards in national categories, despite multiple nominations.

McCrady’s was passed over for an award in the Outstanding Wine Program category. FIG was also a finalist, giving Charleston the distinction of being the only city other than New York City and San Francisco to claim more than one nomination in a single national award category. But San Francisco’s A16 beat the odds to claim the award.

“This is such an amazing group of colleagues that I know and love,” said Shelley Lindgren, A16’s wine director.

In addition to the awards voted on by about 600 food writers and past winners, the gala program includes the recognition of restaurants named America’s Classics and new inductees into Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America. Charleston food writer Nathalie Dupree was also honored, along with country ham ace Allan Benton, cocktail revivalist Dale DeGroff and chefs Wylie Dufresne and Maricel Presilla. Although the inductees weren’t given the chance to speak from the stage, Dupree before the event said, “I’m really thrilled about this, and truly grateful for the recognition —for me and for Southern cooking.”

Other regional winners of note included Alon Shaya of New Orleans, awarded Best Chef South.

New York’s Jim Lahey won the inaugural award for Outstanding Baker.

This year’s awards ceremony was held at the Lyric Opera in Chicago. The complete list of winners is online at jamesbeard.org.