Levon Wallace, Proof on Main (Photos courtesy of StarChefs)

Honoree Levon Wallace, Proof on Main
(Photos courtesy of StarChefs)

Since nearly every publication, website and news channel creates its own “best of” list, it’s not out of the question that some might ignore StarChefs singling out Kentucky and Tennessee for its Rising Star Awards in 2014.

They shouldn’t. It’s easily one of the best-vetted best-of compilations in the U.S., one with an independent mission of finding who’s coming up rather than lauding who’s already arrived.

StarChefs—a magazine for culinary-industry insiders—created the Rising Star Awards in 2002 as an alternative to the widely regarded James Beard Awards, which focuses on well-known chefs, writers, beverage professionals and their longstanding accomplishments.

“We enjoy being part of a chef’s trajectory and supporting them over the length of their career, not just from the time they became famous,” said Caroline Hatchett, features editor at StarChefs.

For years the New York City-based website and magazine publisher has focused on chefs, restaurateurs, beverage pros and food and beverage artisans in major metros. But in recent years it’s expanded its coverage to other cities in search of up-and-coming culinary professionals in several second-tier, emerging markets. This year it took a long look at Kentucky and Tennessee.

“What’s happened is many of these professionals have moved out of larger markets like New York, San Francisco and L.A. to establish themselves in new markets,” Hatchett said. “The most exciting part of my job is to go to these emerging markets and find those chefs and artisans with an amazing amount of talent. It’s really rewarding to shine a light on some who aren’t getting national attention.”

It will celebrate the accomplishments of this year’s 17 nominees when it hosts its annual Rising Star Gala on Tuesday, Feb. 25, from 7:30-9:30 p.m. at the Muhammad Ali Center. The event will give the public a chance to mix and mingle with some of the area’s craftspeople and nosh on excellent food and drink. (Click here to buy tickets.)

Though the Rising Star vetting process is no mean feat, it’s a tasty travel odyssey for the StarChefs team, which researched the area’s talent for nearly a year.

To arrive at the markets it will focus on, the group combines its own research with recommendations from people in those markets. It then pares the list of possibilities down to about 100 and travels to those areas to investigate further. The list is reduced yet again, and another team of researchers visits those professionals for tastings and photo shoots.

“At that point, we’re doing four to six tastings every day, which is brutal, but it’s the most exciting part of our job,” said Hatchett, adding that StarChefs spent more than three weeks traveling through Tennessee and Kentucky. “We spend about one-and-a-half hours at each stop to do interviews, take photos and eat.”

James Tooill

James Tooill, Argo Sons Coffee

While Hatchett said the group was impressed with the talent level of the area’s chefs and mixologists, she said they were “incredibly surprised with the artisan community. We met with five different coffee roasters and had some of the best coffee we’ve had in any market in America. Also the brewers at Against the Grain were amazing, as was Jay Denham, who’s producing what may be the best ham in the country.”

Some Louisville-area nominees were pleased with the praise.

“I think it’s a really big deal to be nominated,” said James Tooill, coffee roaster at Argo Sons near Jeffersontown. “We’re such a small company—I’m the only true employee. And since I know they talked to roasters with much larger reputations and more employees than ours, I’m really flattered that they picked us based on taste.”

As a longtime StarChefs reader, Proof on Main executive chef Levon Wallace said he’s used the publication to network with other chefs and land new jobs. He also said its reliance on industry peers for nominations adds credibility to the Rising Star distinction.

“(StarChefs’) whole network is great,” said Wallace. “Its voice is something I’ve respected for a long time, so to be in their court is a huge honor for me.”

Ham maker Jay Denham

Jay Denham, The Cure House

Jay Denham, who currently is in New York City after doing a cured meat and pork-centered dinner at Daniel Bolud’s famed DBGB restaurant in Manhattan, said looking at the list of nominees gives him pride to find his name among such a variety of accomplished professionals.

“To see what they do so seriously and passionately—which not everyone does—and be recognized for it is great,” said Denham, ham maker at The Cure House in Okolona. “I’m sure they share a passion for their crafts as I do mine.”