The James Beard Awards are only a big deal if you’re a chef, or you’d like to be a chef, or you might eat at a restaurant sometime in your life.
They are the Oscars of the American dining scene and they honor chefs from all parts of the country. Milwaukee has been well-represented among the nominees and winners over time. The awards will be announced Monday April 2 in Chicago. Ahead of that, food contributor Kyle Cherek discusses the process of choosing the award winners and where Wisconsin falls in the conversation.
"All the chefs in the country that are cooking, and are cooking in a region for more than a year, can be considered for this," says Cherek. "The public writes in and sends emails, and then there's a cut off for that. Then there's a very secretive 'Opus Dei' kind of judge group... those judges also consist of the chefs that have previously won."
This group of judges votes and out of that round of voting comes a list of "semi-finalists" for each region. From there, only the James Beard judges vote. They narrow the group down to four or five nominees, or finalists, for each region.
"One of those chefs [gets the] highest honor you can win as an American chef. It's an honor that's bestowed upon you by both your peers and intelligentsia of the food world," says Cherek.
As for Wisconsin's place at the table, "over the past 15 years, there have been 46 James Beard 'nods' (either semi-finalists or nominees), to Milwaukee or Madison alone," says Cherek. "32 have been in the last five years."
Included in that figure are a few Milwaukee chefs, semi-finalists David Swanson of Braise, Thomas Hauck of Karl Ratzsch, and nominee Justin Carlisle of Ardent. A chef generally only wins a Beard award once, and only two chefs in the history of the awards have won twice.
While Cherek is a fan of Justin Carlisle, he actually hopes that he doesn't win the James Beard award this year because that would mean an end to his nominations. The build up to winning is "great press and it fills tables." But that doesn't mean that Cherek doesn't want these chefs to win eventually. "I just want as many gold James Beard medals hanging on walls in this city as possible," says Cherek.
Lake Effect contributor Kyle Cherek is host of the public television show "Wisconsin Foodie".