No Central Florida chef has ever made it to the finals of the James Beard Awards. it's high time that changed.
The James Beard Foundation Awards were announced a few weeks ago. The Oscars of American food, Beard Awards recognize the country’s best chefs, bakers, mixologists and restaurants.
Our local semi-finalist nominees for Best Chef-South over the years are names we know well: Kathleen Blake (four times), The Rusty Spoon; Brandon McGlamery, Luma on Park; Scott Hunnel (eight times), Victoria & Albert's; James and Julie Petrakis (the only couple to have ever been nominated together), The Ravenous Pig; Hari Pulapaka (four times), Cress; and Henry Salgado, Spanish River Grill.
None has ever made it to the final ballot, and I can tell you why.
The country is split into 10 regions, and Florida falls into the South, which also includes Alabama, Arkansas, Puerto Rico, Louisiana and Mississippi. The initial suggestions are created by approximately 600 national judges—writers, critics, previous award winners and food professionals from across the country, then pared down by judges in each district. They decide the list of semifinalists for their own region, whether it be South, Midwest or New York.
But voting to determine who's on the final ballot (from which the winner is chosen), is open to any national judge who has actually eaten in the restaurant, regardless of where it is. The entire roster of James Beard judges votes on the entire ballot, and that’s our problem—they don’t eat in Orlando.
We still labor under the Orlando-equals-theme-park shadow; even the pieces of national press we’ve managed to attract in the past few years invariably begin with “Hard to believe, but there ARE good places to eat in Orlando!” A declaration of Central Florida’s thriving, bursting, innovative culinary scene usually includes an apology—we do it ourselves, with T-shirts meekly inscribed “Orlando Doesn’t Suck”—and it perpetuates an atmosphere where judges would rather go to backwater Alabama towns to eat instead of our splendid city.
I’ve already asked the area’s celebrities to help change that. Art Smith, Morimoto, Rick Bayless, Todd English, Roy Yamaguchi and Mark Wahlberg are just a few of the internationally known chefs who contribute to Orlando’s food scene, and I think they should start spreading the word that our homegrown chefs also have the goods. Emeril Lagasse’s TV show about Florida has already spotlighted local chefs; Guy Fieri recently turned his focus on several Orlando innovators such as Se7en Bites; Norman Van Aken’s next cookbook, Florida Kitchen, champions our local bounty. We need more.
There are restaurants in Orlando that are as impressive as anywhere in the world; it’s what keeps me interested in writing about them. Of course, I have odd opinions: I think there should be a Grammy for bongo solo. An Oscar for best eyeglass frames. Tony Awards should be handed out for Best Audience. And James Beard should give an award for garnishes, and one for silverware.
I might even name an Orlando magazine Dining Award Critic's Pick for Best Chef's Tattoo next year.