james beard semifinalist lona luo of lona's lil eats photo by virginia harold

6 St. Louis chefs, Planter’s House earn James Beard semifinalist nods

The James Beard Foundation has once again nominated several St. Louis-area chefs and industry professionals for its prestigious awards recognizing excellence in the culinary industry. This year, six chefs and one bar received semifinalists nominations.

nippon tei executive chef nick bognar // photo by david kovaluk

Nick Bognar was nominated for Rising Star Chef of the Year for his work as executive chef at Nippon Tei.

“That’s insane. It’s super cool,” he said. “Anything to do with the Beard means so much to me. Obviously you work your whole life to try to get [something] with them. I’m stoked. All that means to me is that more people will be watching. We’re going to open a new restaurant, and it’s going to rock.” (He didn’t elaborate further on the future eatery.)

from left, nathaniel reid bakery co-owners and pastry chefs lee lee and nathaniel reid // photo by michelle volansky

Nathaniel Reid Bakery co-owner Nathaniel Reid earned a nomination for Outstanding Baker. Reid, who said he won a Beard Foundation scholarship early in his career, said it was exciting to come full circle with the organization. “It’s so neat to see that they helped me to get started,” he said.

Reid said he was humbled by the nomination and appreciated that the Beard Foundation recognized talent away larger cities.

“I really feel like you have to shine more when you’re not on the coast to get that recognition because there’s not national media walking in here every day,” he said.  

cocktail at planter's house // photo by michelle volanksy

Lafayette Square cocktail bar Planter’s House landed on the Outstanding Bar Program List.

“I’m in New York, and we were out until like 3 a.m., so I just found out – I’m very surprised,” said Planter's co-owner Ted Kilgore. “I absolutely had zero clue; it’s awesome. I’m pretty excited.”

Kilgore said he hoped the Beard Foundation recognized the genuine love the Planter’s House team has for bartending.  

“We try to have fun every day at work and with our employees and our customers, and I think that’s the most important thing: great service, great products and having a good time,” he said.

Four St. Louis-area chefs were nominated for Best Chef: Midwest: Michael Gallina of Vicia, Lona Luo of Lona’s Lil Eats, Jesse Mendica of Olive + Oak and Ny Vongsaly of Billie-Jean.

vicia chef-co-owner michael gallina // photo by jonathan gayman

This is the first Best Chef nomination for Gallina; Vicia was on the long list of Best New Restaurants in 2018. “The restaurant was nominated last year, but this is my first time as a chef,” Gallina said. “It feels incredible. The best part was playing with my daughter and scrolling through my phone and it came up, and I was like, ‘Oh, wow!’ To be able to share that with her and [co-owner and wife] Tara [Gallina] first thing this morning was pretty spectacular.”

Gallina said the nomination reflected the entire team’s effort. “I think it’s an incredible restaurant and group. What we’re doing at Vicia, our whole staff and team strive to get better and better each and every day, and I think this is a great compliment.”

olive + oak executive chef jesse mendica // photo by carmen troesser

This is the second nomination for both Luo and Mendica.

“Oh gosh, it’s so exciting,” said Luo, who was nominated last year. “I don’t have any words to describe it.” 

Mendica was also a semifinalists in 2017. "The second time means maybe it wasn't an accident he first time,” she said. “I love that people love what we’re doing. ... It's pretty cool to see my name along with everybody else's up there.” 

This is the first nomination for Vongsaly, who has been executive chef of Billie-Jean owner Zoe Robinson’s restaurants for years. Vongsaly was not immediately available for comment.

swordfish with crispy fingerling potatoes at billie-jean // photo by michelle volansky

“I’m just mostly happy for Ny. He came here with nothing to the United States, and he’s worked so hard,” Robinson said. 

Robinson added that Vongsaly's leadership in the kitchen is as valuable as his culinary skill. "He’s so kind to our employees," she said. "That’s the other marvelous thing about him, that he’s wonderful to work with. I think as a mentor to other immigrants and other cooks, it’s a big deal to have a really kindhearted person to work under.”

The James Beard Foundation will announce the finalists on Wednesday, March 27. The James Beard Award winners will be announced at the foundation’s annual gala on Monday, May 6 in Chicago.

St. Louis is currently home to two James Beard Award winners for Best Chef: Midwest: Niche Food Group chef-owner Gerard Craft, who won in 2015, and Sidney Street Cafe chef-owner Kevin Nashan, who won in 2017.  The foundation also named The Hill staple Gioia’s Deli an American Classic in 2017. 

Lauren Healey is associate editor at Sauce Magazine. Catherine Klene is managing editor, digital at Sauce Magazine. Adam Rothbarth is a staff writer at Sauce Magazine.  

Editor's note: This article was updated at 2:50 p.m. to include a quote from Jesse Mendica.