6 STL-area chefs, restaurants earn James Beard nominations
It’s that time of year again. The James Beard Foundation announced its list of semifinalists for its annual awards recognizing chefs and restaurants today, Feb. 15, and once again, St. Louis’ food scene was well represented with six nominations, including some first-timers.
Vicia was nominated for Best New Restaurant. “It’s a huge honor. It was something we hoped to achieve,” said co-owner Tara Gallina. “When we opened – you know, you always set goals for yourself – this was certainly a high goal, so nothing we would be heartbroken if we didn't get. But we’ve been really pushing ourselves and our team.”
This is the latest in a slew of local and national honors for the Central West End restaurant, which opened in March 2017. Gallina said she’s aware of what this recognition can do for Vicia’s business, since James Beard nominations are something people look at for ideas while traveling.
“I’m the same way when I go to a new city,” she said. “It’s wonderful to be able to attract people from all over. These types of things are amazing for your business … and will also help attract amazing talent.”
Longtime St. Louis fine-dining standby Tony’s made the semifinalist list for Outstanding Service, which recognizes restaurants in business at least five years that demonstrate high standards of hospitality and service.
Chef Vincent P. Bommarito Jr. said it was Tony's first Beard nomination. “We are so excited about it. We didn’t know anything about it until it came out in the news,” he said.
Bommarito Jr. said the recognition will spur his front-of-house team to even greater levels of hospitality. “I have to tell you, we're not taking this lightly," he said. "Service is going to be better now than ever."
The foundation also singled out four area nominees for Best Chef: Midwest: Elaia executive chef Ben Grupe, Sardella executive chef Ashley Shelton, Privado chef-owner Mike Randolph and Lona’s Lil’ Eats chef-owner Lona Luo. This is the first such nomination for Grupe, Luo and Shelton and No. 3 for Randolph.
“It’s a great and humbling experience,” said Randolph, who was a semifinalist in 2016 and 2017. “I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t weird to see Privado on there instead of Público, because we’ve done such good work there. But Privado has been a really special project for me. You never know who’s going to be sitting at the table.” He added that it’s satisfying to see the unique weekend-only concept recognized. “It definitely puts a pep in our step.”
Luo said she found out about the honor when people starting congratulating her this morning. The fast-casual Fox Park eatery specializes in fare from Xishuangbanna in China's Yunnan province, where Luo grew up. She prides herself on making every sauce and marinade from scratch without MSG or preservatives. "If people are happy, their body is happy and it's making me happy” she said.
Luo credits her front of house and kitchen staff, particularly chef Jason Hummel, with the success of her restaurant. “My team is absolutely awesome," she said. "I really love them. Without them I cannot make that happen. ... They are my right hands and my left hands."
This is the second time the James Beard Foundation recognized Shelton; in 2017, she was a semifinalist for Rising Star Chef of the Year, which recognizes promising chefs younger than 30. Shelton, who was a 2016 One to Watch, said the nomination validated her growth in the kitchen. “I’m actually doing good at this,” she said. “It’s not just about being young anymore – it’s about being a talented chef.”
Shelton credited her Sardella team for helping her reach this point. “It’s awesome. I think it’s going to be a huge lift for everybody at Sardella,” she said. “It’s going to fuel them and push us to keep working even harder than we already are.”
Sardella owner Gerard Craft said Shelton earned the honor. “We’re super excited for her, and this is very well deserved,” he said. “She works her tail off everyday, and this is the result."
Grupe said he appreciated the recognition of his team's hard work. “It’s a great honor. It’s referred to as the Oscars of the culinary world, so just being nominated is a great achievement," he said. "We’ll see where we fall when they make the next announcement in March."
Elaia owner Ben Poremba said the honor further proves that Grupe is doing something special at the Botanical Heights fine dining restaurant.
“It wasn’t easy for me to leave my position and trust my restaurant to someone,” said Poremba, himself a three-time James Beard Best Chef: Midwest nominee. “But Ben came in and took it to new heights. I’m proud of him, proud of his work and proud of our restaurant group. It takes a lot of work, focus and resilience."
Tony’s and Luo didn’t immediately return requests for comment.
The finalists for each category will be announced at 8:30 a.m. March 14, and the annual James Beard Awards will take place May 7 in Chicago.
Editor's note: This article was updated at 11:20 a.m. Feb. 15 to include comments from Ben Grupe. it was updated again at 1:40 p.m. to include comments from Lona Luo. It was updated again at 3:30 p.m Feb. 23 to include comments from Vincent P. Bommarito Jr.
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