Awards season is upon us. Music has the Grammys, the film industry has the Oscars, but for chefs and restaurateurs, the pinnacle of recognition comes from the James Beard Foundation, which just released the list of semi-finalists for its James Beard Awards (the Beardies?), which will be given out later this spring.
Although Denver has had trouble in the past getting its fair share of acclaim, the metro area can boast a few winners. Despite competing against much bigger cities in the Southwest region, Jennifer Jasinski, Alex Seidel and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson have all been bestowed with coveted James Beard awards for Best Chef Southwest, for their work at Rioja (2013), Mercantile Dining & Provision (2018) and Frasca Food & Wine (2008), respectively.
This year, Colorado has two semi-finalists in the Best Chef Southwest category: Caroline Glover of Annette, at Stanley Marketplace in Aurora; and Kelly Whitaker, who was nominated for his new Sunnyside restaurant, the Wolf’s Tailor, but has also run Basta in Boulder since 2010. Glover was nominated for Best Chef Southwest last year, too, and Annette was a 2018 semi-finalist for Best New Restaurant.
This year's batch of semi-finalists includes a few underdogs as well. Most surprising is Q House, which opened last May on East Colfax Avenue and landed in the Best New Restaurant category — not just for the Southwest, but for the entire country.
Executive chef/partner Christopher Lin says he didn't find out about Q House's semi-finalist status until he was reading food blogs this morning and saw his picture along with a list of other nominees. "We're very honored and humbled — as well as surprised and happy," the chef says. If you want to taste what the James Beard Award committee members found so enticing, Lin suggests a new dish on the menu: chicken and shrimp wontons, served soft and coated in schmaltz chili oil. "It's basically my excuse to feed people more chicken skin and chicken fat," he notes.
This year, the foundation is clearly looking beyond white tablecloths and European technique in order to recognize the contributions of other cultures to America's dining scene. Back in 2008, only five or so semi-finalists in the Best New Restaurant category served food from outside the European and American canon, but just over a decade later, there are more than a dozen, with Korean, Middle Eastern, Mexican, Japanese, Chinese and Cambodian representation. Part of the increased diversity in restaurants is because the selection committee itself has become intentionally more diverse; Denver's own Adrian Miller, food historian and author of Soul Food and The President's Kitchen Cabinet, is on this year's committee.
Still, where was the James Beard Foundation when Hop Alley launched its regional Chinese menu in 2015? As one of Denver's first modern takes on Chinese cuisine, that menu seemed even more in-depth and adventurous than Q House's offerings today.
The Denver area is flush with great new eateries that opened last year, including Morin, Beckon, Julep, Corrida, Liberati, Safta and Super Mega Bien, all of which could hold their own against the competition in Arizona, Utah, Austin, San Antonio, Santa Fe, Houston and Dallas, if not the entire country. But none of them got a nod.
Predictably, Aspen got a shout-out (many East Coasters use Denver only for its airport as they head for the posh mountain playground for celebs). This year, a semi-finalist slot for Outstanding Wine Program went to Element 47 at the Little Nell. And perennial James Beard nominee Frasca Food & Wine made the list for Outstanding Service...but why not give the restaurant its due with another Outstanding Restaurant nomination, which it snagged in 2018? Was the pasta not quite on point for the committee this year?
Distillers Todd Leopold and Scott Leopold of Leopold Bros. were honored again this year with a semi-finalist spot in the Outstanding Wine, Spirits, or Beer Producer category; that recognition is well deserved. But Colorado is home to dozens of the country's best beer and spirits producers, and the list should reflect that with more than one token nominee.
Other local semi-finalists include Andy Clark of Moxie Bread Co. in Louisville for Best Baker (his second nomination) and Jeb Breakell of the Wolf’s Tailor for Outstanding Pastry Chef. The two are worthy of the honor, but we'd also love to see industry veterans like Nadine Donovan of Secret Sauce (Steuben's, Ace Eat Serve and Vesta) and Joy Williams of TAG Restaurant Group get a little national attention as two of the city's top pastry chefs.
And speaking of restaurant groups, Denver was completely snubbed in the Outstanding Restaurateur category, despite the likes of Frank Bonanno, Jennifer Jasinski, Troy Guard, Dave Query, Lon Symensma, Justin Cucci, Kevin Taylor, Justin Brunson, and Kimbal Musk and Hugo Matheson.
The James Beard Awards don't come with red-carpet outfits, Hollywood glamour or controversial hosts, but they're important to the restaurant industry. When attention to Denver's dining scene seems arbitrary, scattershot or cursory, that's a blow to the chefs and restaurant owners who put great food out for the city every day.
Finalists in each category will be announced on March 27, and the winners will get their medals on May 6 in Chicago. In the meantime, cheers to this year's semi-finalists, and here's hoping we see more representation from Colorado on next year's list.
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