2017 Tar Heels of the Year: renowned chef and restaurateur, Ashley Christensen
Chef Ashley Christensen and Brewery Bhavana, each enjoying a big year of national acclaim, are semifinalists for two of the James Beard Foundation’s highest national awards.
For the second year in a row, Christensen is up for Outstanding Chef, having previously won the award for Best Chef: Southeast in 2014. Brewery Bhavana, not even a year old, is up for Best New Restaurant in the country.
In all, 12 North Carolina chefs, brewers, bakers and restaurants are in the running for James Beard awards, having been selected from 20,000 entries, the James Beard Foundation announced Thursday.
The 21 wide ranging awards are considered among the industry’s highest honors, often compared to film’s Oscars. The awards honor the best chef in various geographical regions and in culinary disciplines, such as baking and beverage service.
North Carolina competes in the the Southeast region, one of the country’s most competitive, as a national spotlight has turned to Southern food and, like the Triangle, cities such as Atlanta, Charleston, Savannah and Nashville are in the midst of major food moments.
The Triangle has gotten considerable James Beard love in the past, with chefs often among the Foundation’s semifinalists. They’ve snagged four awards in the last couple decades. Christensen and chef Andrea Reusing, of Lantern and The Durham, are each winners of the Best Chef: Southeast awards. Before them, Ben Barker, of the former Magnolia Grill, won the award and, his wife, Karen Barker, won outstanding pastry chef in the country, also for Magnolia Grill.
Many of North Carolina’s semifinalists have been nominated before. This is the sixth year in the Best Chef: Southeast category for Kinston chef Vivian Howard of Chef & the Farmer and the second for Cheetie Kumar of Garland. It’s the third for Sean Lilly Wilson, owner of Durham’s Fullsteam Brewery, who is nominated for the third time for Outstanding Wine, Spirits, or Beer Professional.
This is the second year Gabe Barker of Carrboro’s Pizzeria Mercato has been nominated for Rising Star Chef, which is given to a chef age 30 or younger who “displays an impressive talent and who is likely to make a significant impact on the industry in years to come.”
The Beard semifinalists will be whittled down to finalists on March 14. The winners will be announced at a gala in Chicago May 7.
Winners of the 2018 James Beard Media Awards will be announced April 27.
It’s been a big week for Kumar and Garland, which enjoyed a national burst of publicity after rocker Robert Plant visited the restaurant Friday for dinner after his show at Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium. The story of his midnight snack, and his singing “Happy Birthday” to Kumar (though it wasn’t her birthday), drew national attention.
National acclaim continues to come to Brewery Bhavana, which serves Asian dumplings and small plates and brews its own beer. Since it opened in March last year, it has been named one of the best new restaurants in the country by Bon Appetit magazine, as well as one of the coolest restaurants on earth, by Forbes. Simultaneously a restaurant, a taproom, a book store and a flower shop, Bhavana co-founder Vansana Nolintha once said to a friend that the restaurant might not ever catch on because it didn’t fit in any category.
“We don’t fit in anything, but these accolades and awards are much more symbolic that the industry will acknowledge restaurants that are creative and community centered,” said Nolintha Thursday. He opened the restaurant with his sister, Vanvisa, and brewer Patrick Woodson. “It’s an exciting moment for food and hospitality.”
As far as the James Beard awards, he said all he knew was that the semifinalists would be announced “sometime in February.” He called it humbling to see Bhavana’s name among 28 other restaurants around the country. He went next door to Bida Manda, the other restaurant he owns with his sister, lighting incense at the alter and thinking of their parents thousands of miles away in their native Laos.
This is the first semifinalist nod for Sam Jones, who is up for Best Chef: Southeast. His family’s famed barbecue temple Skylight Inn received a James Beard “America’s Classics” Award in 2003, something akin to a lifetime achievement award. Jones, a third generation pitmaster, said Thursday morning that his phone suddenly started blowing up with text messages while he was filming with a TV crew at his restaurant.
“I thought something was wrong with my family. I was like, ‘what is it I’m not aware of?’” Jones said. “I was blissfully unaware. Then I saw James Beard in one of the texts. ... My eyes welled right up.”
Barbecue is no longer dismissed for its humbleness, with the Beard awards recognizing pitmasters alongside the stars of fine dining. Jones joins other star smokers among the regional semifinalists, Rodney Scott in Charleston and Norma “Tootsie” Tomanetz of Snow’s BBQ, sometimes called the best in Texas. Still, Jones struggles to accept the recognition himself.
“I don’t consider myself as talented as the other people nominated,” he said. “My family were barbecue folks before barbecue was cool. My approach has been, being fortunate enough to be friends with and in the company of some of the brightest, most talented folks in food and learning from them and bringing that back and applying it to what we do here.”
Wilson, of Fullsteam Brewery, was a Beard semifinalist in 2012 and 2013. His Durham brewery is known for creative brews, but also for an obsessive commitment to local farmers in making those beers. Fullsteam continues to grow year to year, introducing new beers, ramping up production and adding a kitchen, with plans for an expansion in the works.
“It’s been a year of introspection for me,” Wilson said. “As we grow up and look at how we’re aiming to grow, we’re able to double down on our mission. It’s nice to have a nomination for an award, but you can’t look to awards to validate you, that needs to come internally. So I’ll breathe a little sigh. Not of relief and not of satisfaction really, just a little sigh.”
The story of North Carolina’s beer scene shows up to some extent on the Beard long list.
Leah Wong Ashburn, of Asheville’s Highland Brewing Co., is nominated for the same award. In taking over for her father at Highland, Ashburn is seen as reinvigorating the state’s largest home grown brewery.
Fullsteam and Brewery Bhavana have since opened in a beer-obsessed state, each demonstrating new ambitions for craft beer to do much more than pour an alternative to the macro suds. Bhavana brewer Woodson said breweries weren’t common to see on Beard lists, but that it’s a big statement to now see three coming from North Carolina.
“It speaks volumes of North Carolina beer as a whole and of what we’re producing as of late,” Woodson said. “It’s very very exciting to see North Carolina breweries so well represented.”
Drew Jackson; 919-829-4707; @jdrewjackson
The full list of nominees can be found at jamesbeard.org.
Best New Restaurant
▪ Brewery Bhavana, Raleigh
▪ David Bauer, Farm & Sparrow, Asheville
Outstanding Wine, Spirits, or Beer Professional
▪ Leah Wong Ashburn, Highland Brewing Co., Asheville
Rising Star Chef of the Year
Best Chef: Southeast
▪ Katie Button, Nightbell, Asheville
▪ Meherwan Irani, Chai Pani, Asheville
▪ Sam Jones, Sam Jones BBQ, Winterville
▪ Joe Kindred, Kindred, Davidson