North Carolina chefs and bakers had a strong showing among the James Beard Foundation’s semifinalists, which were announced Wednesday at a news conference in Chicago.
The semifinalists included Phoebe Lawless of Scratch Bakery in Durham and Lionel Vatinet of La Farm Bakery in Cary for Outstanding Baker, a new category created this year to distinguish restaurant pastry chefs from bakers or pastry chefs who own their own businesses. It is a national award, not a regional award like Best Chef Southeast, and therefore it is pretty impressive that the Triangle has two among the list of 25.
Vatinet got the news while attending Ash Wednesday services at St. Michael The Archangel Roman Catholic Church in Cary.
“This is incredible. I’m a bit speechless,” Vatinet said when reached by phone Wednesday afternoon. “It’s nice to see bakers represented in the James Beard awards.”
Vatinet is a master baker, born and trained in France, who came to Cary with his wife, Missy, in 1999 to open a French bakery. The couple’s small shop has become a retail bakery with a 60-seat cafe that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. They also run a wholesale operation that serves five Whole Foods stores in the Triangle.
The Vatinets’ business is indicative of what the James Beard Foundation was trying to honor with its new Outstanding Baker award. Phil Vettel, chair of the restaurant and chef awards committee, said in a press release earlier this year: “The Outstanding Baker award grew from our desire to honor those professionals working beyond the restaurant dessert realm.”
Semifinalists for Best Chef Southeast included these North Carolina chefs: Vivian Howard of Chef & the Farmer in Kinston, N.C. and star of “A Chef’s Life” on PBS; Scott Howell of Nana’s in Durham; Matt Kelly of Vin Rouge and Mateo Tapas in Durham; Aaron Vandemark of Panciuto in Hillsborough; and Katie Button of Curate, Meherwan Irani of Chai Pani and John Fleer of Rhubarb, all in Asheville.
There are typically 20 to 25 semifinalists, depending upon the category. Those numbers are culled to five finalists or nominees in each category. Finalists in the chef and restaurant awards, as well as broadcast, book and journalism awards, will be announced March 24.
The James Beard awards are considered the Oscars of the food world, honoring restaurants, chefs, restaurant designers, writers, journalists and cookbook authors. The foundation is named after James Beard, a television food personality and cookbook author who was an early champion of regional American cuisine.
Only four North Carolina chefs have won James Beard awards while working in the state. Ben Barker of the former Magnolia Grill in Durham, Andrea Reusing of Lantern in Chapel Hill and Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner in Raleigh won Best Chef Southeast in 2000, 2011 and 2014 respectively. Barker’s wife, Karen, won Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2003. (The Barkers closed Magnolia Grill in 2012, but still reside and teach cooking classes in the Triangle.)
Note: Andrea Weigl serves as chair of the James Beard Foundation’s book awards committee.