Commentary: No medallions predicted for Kentucky’s James Beard Awards nominees, but that’s no reflection of their worth

Beard Award logoIn February, restaurateurs, chefs, bartenders and booze pros don’t long for charms or candy on Valentine’s Day. They want a James Beard Award nomination. For them, love is spelled B-E-A-R-D.

On Wednesday, the James Beard Foundation announced its annual nominees for what are correctly and colloquially termed “the Oscars of the restaurant industry.”

Yet I predict this year will pass like all the rest with little love for this pair of Kentucky chefs, one restaurateur and two distillers who received nominations. They, like so many of their fellow nominees, are worthy of receiving the coveted medallion embossed with the jowly likeness of famed food writer James Beard. But the legendarily opaque criteria for nominees and its Star Chamber of judges will combine yet again to unintentionally overlook the Bluegrass State’s contribution to the restaurant world.

Lilly's chef-owner, Kathy Cary.

Lilly’s chef-owner, Kathy Cary

Whether that’s deserved is another discussion altogether. So let’s stick to this point: I’m not confident Kentucky restaurant folk will get any hardware when it’s handed out this May.

Fact is, Kentucky does not burn all that brightly on the national culinary radar, despite what all the dubious “best restaurant” lists say. If, as National Geographic claims, Louisville is one of the world’s best restaurant cities, why are there only two Louisville chefs up for Beard Awards this year?

Why also are there no Louisville restaurants nominated for Outstanding Restaurant, Outstanding Service, Best New Restaurant, Outstanding Bar Program and Outstanding Wine Program, or crew members acknowledged as Outstanding Pastry Chef or Rising Star Chef of the Year?

It’s easy to believe the hype born of Internet lists when you love your city’s restaurants. But a well-respected body of judges doesn’t give a hoot about all the civic pride that stirs in our hearts and bellies. They’re asking the fair question of, “How do Louisville restaurants compare to those in the rest of the nation?” And they’re answering it with a very short list of local nominees.

This year’s pair includes chef-owners Kathy Cary (Lilly’s Bistro) and Edward Lee (610 Magnolia, MilkWood and Succotash), who were nominated for Best Chef Southeast. If my count’s right, this is the seventh nomination for Cary and the fifth for Lee.

That both claim a combined 12 nominations also screams the questions, “Why aren’t others here being nominated?” and “Are these the only two Beard-worthy chefs in the city?”

The answers are, respectively, “Good question,” and “Of course not.”

Getting a Beard nomination is not just about having a great restaurant, it’s about PR. It’s about press in print and on the web. It’s about TV appearances. It’s about brand awareness way outside a restaurant’s DMA. Sometimes it’s about the ability to run multiple units and author cookbooks. And often it’s about invitations to cook at serious food and drink festivals around the country — the likes of which our city will not succeed in putting together until at least 2017!

Edward Lee, chef and co-owner of 610 Magnolia, MilkWood and Succotash

Cary had a strong PR effort years ago that helped Lilly’s gain some recognition. And though she’s throttled back on PR in recent years, she still gets a nod because her restaurant remains great and she’s well known among the JBF powers that be. But above all, she’s earned that recognition.

Lee’s checked about every box available to garner his nominations. He now has three restaurants, a solid cookbook and a lot of TV footage featuring just him. He’s highly relevant and also well known among other well-regarded chefs. Honestly, it wouldn’t surprise me if he actually won it, but the competition he and Cary are facing is super stiff.

Here’s a question some chef friends have asked on Facebook: If Lee and Cary keep repeating as nominees, why aren’t past nominees Anthony Lamas (Seviche) and Coby Ming (then at Harvest, now at Wiltshire at the Speed Museum) returning this year? Good question. Lamas just finished a dandy book, and he’s gotten some valuable screen time, but neither of those appears to have accrued dividends among the 2016 Beard judges.

And let’s step back in time a bit and consider how Dean Corbett escaped nomination over a 30-year career. He had strong PR backing for Equus and Corbett’s: An American Place, which got lots of national press. It’s still arguably the state’s finest dining temple, yet he’s never been nominated.

Shawn Ward’s run at Jack Fry’s was nothing short of marvelous, but the quiet and unassuming chef (now at Ward 426) has never been nominated.

What about Annie Pettry (Decca) and Patrick Roney (Harvest)? These two super talents are well beyond up-and-comer status now, so why not them? Pettry especially since she’s gotten a good deal of national press love in the past year. Roney’s food at The Oakroom was nothing short of big city quality, so maybe a role more in the spotlight at Harvest will help draw attention in 2017.

Or maybe not. Maybe Louisville will remain in the shadow of much larger restaurant markets next year and for many years to come. Just look at the long list of 2016 nominees to see the astounding number chosen from New York and California. The Golden State alone has nominees from Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Monica, Santa Rosa, Los Gatos, St. Helena, Napa, Beverly Hills, Laguna Beach, Brisbane, Rutherford, Oak View, Sebastopol and Alameda.

Ouita Michel, chef-owner of Holly Hill Inn (and others) in Midway, Ky.

Kentucky’s come from Louisville, Frankfort, Bardstown and Midway.

One of the state’s three other nominees is Ouita Michel, chef and co-owner of Holly Hill Inn, Windy Corner, Wallace Station, Midway School Bakery and Smithtown Seafood. She did not receive her fifth nomination for Best Chef Southeast, but she did get nominated for Outstanding Restaurateur. That says a lot about Michel’s business sense and work ethic.

But will having a few super-casual restaurants in the mix hurt her chances? Arguably so when she’s in the same category as Michael Mina (Mina Restaurants). Take a gander at those jaw-dropping properties and see what I’m talking about.

The others are Kentucky distillers (nominated for Outstanding Wine, Spirits, or Beer Professional) Harlen Wheatley, master distiller at Buffalo Trace (his third nod), and Drew Kulsveen, operator of Willett Distillery.

Were I a betting man, I’d say Wheatley could win it, partly because of the popularity of the highly sought-after brown spirits his team produces — especially that one special one, Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. Not ironically, the only Beard Award won by a Kentuckian was Julian Van Winkle, president of Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery, so maybe that’ll help.

(The Beaumont Inn did win a JBF America’s Classic award in 2015, but that’s a whole different thing.)

Beard awards or not, Kentucky only continues to raise its restaurant community and spirits game. Just this week I visited restaurants in Bardstown, Corbin and Lexington that were flat-out tremendous, places I’d drive back to in a heartbeat. Personally, whether anyone outside the bluegrass knows about the bounty of great eateries we have here doesn’t matter much. That’s their loss, not mine, if they don’t know.

But they should know. They really should.