Milwaukee's Justin Aprahamian of Sanford restaurant has been named Best Chef in the Midwest by the James Beard Foundation.
Known as the "Oscars of food," the Beard awards annually have recognized the best chefs and restaurants across the country since 1991. The awards are the "highest acclaim an American chef can get," says local food expert Kyle Cherek.
"Your colleagues can never take it away from you," says Cherek, who hosts the Emmy-nominated Wisconsin Foodie program, broadcast on PBS. "You've proven it."
Judged by thousands of members of the public and a secret group of 600 food writers and editors, 30 semifinalists for each of 10 regions are initially selected, an honor in itself. That list is then whittled to a short list of four to five nominees. Finally, a winner is announced during a special ceremony in New York, attended by "every famous name that you could think of," Cherek says.
Justin Aprahamian, who bought Sanford from its namesake and fellow Beard winner Sandy D'Amato and wife, Angie, had previously been nominated four times. This year, Cherek says, Aprahamian had some tough competition from chefs like Paul Berglund and Michelle Gayer in Minneapolis, Gerard Craft and Kevin Nashan in St. Louis, and Lenny Russo in St. Paul.
He was also nominated by the Beard Foundation as a "Rising Star," a national list of chefs under 30 who are "changing the way American cuisine moves forward," Cherek says.
Milwaukee chefs have been well-represented in the Beard competition, Cherek says. In addition to D'Amato, Milwaukee chef Adam Siegel of Lake Park Bistro and Bacchus has also won the Beard award. Other Milwaukee chefs who were named semifinalists this year included chef David Swanson of Braise (his second time) and chef Justin Carlisle of the new restaurant Ardent, which had only been open four months at the time of the nominations.
"Should anybody ever wonder, 'How's Milwaukee's dining scene doing?' We're kicking butt and taking names," he says. "You could start in Walker's Point at Crazy Water and you could comfortably walk restaurant to restaurant until you got to Lake Park Bistro and eat in a restaurant where the chef had either been semifinaled, nomineed or won the James Beard."
Even though Aprahamian has been recognized with such an accolade, Cherek says don't expect him to slow down to enjoy the spoils.
"Anybody as far as I've met wins the Beard or gets close to it, that's cream on the cake but that's not the reason they got up in the morning," he says. "It's such a craft, and so few of them make a lot of money or get famous, so you're doing it for the love of it."