Food & Drink

Weigl: The Triangle has many James Beard-award-worthy chefs

Ashley Christensen of Raleigh is a finalist for Best Chef Southeast.
Ashley Christensen of Raleigh is a finalist for Best Chef Southeast.

On Monday night, Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen will learn if she’s won Best Chef Southeast from the James Beard Foundation, one of the highest honors for an American chef.

What shouldn’t be lost in the deserved celebration about Christensen being named a finalist for the second time is how well this part of North Carolina was represented on the list of semifinalists for this year’s James Beard awards.

We had an outstanding pastry chef semifinalist in Phoebe Lawless of Scratch bakery in Durham, an outstanding restaurateur semifinalist in Giorgios Bakatsias, who owns Vin Rouge, Bin 54 and 10 other restaurants in the Triangle and Charlotte, and a best restaurant semifinalist in the Fearrington House Inn near Pittsboro.

It’s particularly striking that seven of the 20 semifinalists for Best Chef Southeast run kitchens in our part of North Carolina. (Now you can quibble with me about how Kinston is not the Triangle, but I’m claiming chef Vivian Howard of Chef and the Farmer since the Triangle is the closest culinary hub to her Kinston restaurant.)

When one looks at the other nine regions for the best-chef awards, excluding New York City, which is a region unto itself, only a handful of cities or metropolitan areas dominated their region’s list of semifinalists as much as the Triangle did. Those included Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon.

I expect those larger cities with big culinary reputations to dominate their regions. While those who live here know how talented the chefs are in this area, it’s satisfying to see the Triangle’s food scene getting that kind of national attention.

I talked earlier this year to Providence Cicero, a Seattle restaurant critic who chairs the restaurant and chef awards committee. She explained the process: A committee of 17 people, mainly food critics and writers, with the help of 25 judges in each of the 10 regions, narrows down a list of 38,000 chefs nominated by the public. From that, they choose the semifinalists. No one makes the list of semifinalists without a committee member or regional judge having dined at the restaurant or eaten the chef’s food. To make the cut from 38,000 entries to about 400 semifinalists is quite an accomplishment.

“Just to be in that group is a huge honor,” Cicero said.

When I think about how hard that is, I marvel that chef Aaron Vandemark of Panciuto in Hillsborough has been a semifinalist four years in a row. Hillsborough is a trek for people who live in Raleigh, and yet he has impressed enough of those regional judges and committee members to remain a semifinalist.

It’s even harder to become a finalist, as Christensen has done. The list of 400 semifinalists becomes the ballot for the larger pool of judges made up of committee members, the regional judges and all previous James Beard award winners. A chef becomes a finalist for an award by getting enough of that pool of 600 judges to eat their food or dine at their restaurant to be able to vote for them. The winner, of course, got the most votes.

That’s where Christensen has an advantage over Vandemark. She runs a small restaurant empire in Raleigh. He runs one fine-dining restaurant. Christensen can leave her restaurants in able hands to go cook at food and wine festivals in Atlanta, Charleston or Aspen, increasing the likelihood that a James Beard judge will taste her food. Vandemark is essentially a one-man show with a small crew of kitchen help and cannot leave his restaurant to do that.

I had lunch with Vandamark recently. We talked about a number of things: what I had learned about the James Beard voting process, how hard it likely would be for him to become a finalist and what it might be like one day if and when he’s no longer on that list of semifinalists.

I also learned something astounding to me: Reservations at Panciuto are easy to come by on Wednesday and Thursday nights.