Triangle restaurants, chefs among James Beard semifinalists

aweigl@newsobserver.comFebruary 19, 2013 


Ashley Christensen is the executive chef and owner of Poole's Diner, the acclaimed 75-seat restaurant on Raleigh's McDowell Street. She is one of the James Beard semifinalists for Best Chef Southeast.


Triangle restaurants and chefs had a strong showing among the semifinalists announced Tuesday for the annual James Beard awards.

Durham’s Mateo Tapas is under consideration in the best new restaurant category, and Phoebe Lawless, owner of Scratch bakery in Durham, is a nominee for outstanding pastry chef.

Both were surprised by Tuesday’s announcement. The James Beard awards are often described as the Oscars of the culinary world.

“I didn’t know we were on that kind of radar,” Mateo’s owner Matt Kelly said. “I don’t want to sound cheesy – but I’m pretty stoked about my team.”

Kelly’s restaurant, serving Spanish tapas with a Southern inflection, opened last year. News & Observer restaurant critic Greg Cox recently gave the restaurant a rare 41/2-star review.

Lawless is a former assistant pastry chef at the now-closed Magnolia Grill where she worked for Karen Barker, a previous James Beard-award winning pastry chef. Lawless started her business selling baked goods, primarily pies, at farmers market and opened a bakery in 2010.

“It’s nice to see that pie is getting its due,” Lawless said Tuesday.

Kelly said the number of local chefs and restaurants among the semifinalists shows how much talent there is in the area. “Ten or 15 years ago, you might see one name from North Carolina,” he said. “Now there are six or seven people. That’s huge.”

The list of semifinalists in each of the contest’s 20 categories will be narrowed to five finalists and announced March 18. The winner in each category will be revealed at a red carpet gala on May 6 in New York City.

The other North Carolina semifinalists include:

• Lantern Restaurant in Chapel Hill for outstanding restaurant. (Owner and chef Andrea Reusing won a James Beard award for Best Chef Southeast in 2011.)

• Angus Barn in Raleigh for outstanding wine program.

• Sean Lilly Wilson of Durham’s Fullsteam Brewery and Eric Solomon of European Cellars in Charlotte each for outstanding wine, spirits or beer professional.

• Katie Button of Curate in Asheville for rising star chef of the year.

• The semifinalists for best chef southeast are Ashley Christensen of Raleigh’s Poole’s Diner among other restaurants; Scott Crawford of Herons at The Umstead Hotel & Spa in Cary; Vivian Howard of Chef & the Farmer in Kinston; Scott Howell of Nana’s in Durham; Elliot Moss of The Admiral in Asheville; and Aaron Vandemark of Panciuto in Hillsborough.

To see the list of all the semifinalist nominees, go to

Each fall, the foundation puts out a call for award nominations and received more than 44,000 this year. A committee narrows the entrees to a list of semifinalists in each category. Then more than 600 judges across the country – restaurant critics, food and wine editors, culinary educators and past James Beard award winners – vote for five finalists and a winner in each category.

The James Beard Foundation is a nonprofit that recognizes excellence among restaurants, chefs, food writers and cookbook authors. James Beard was a food writer and television personality who championed regional American cuisine. The foundation was created by his friends after his death in 1985.

Weigl: 919-829-4848

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