Kevin Nashan, Sidney Street Cafe (shot on location at Sidney Street Cafe for our January 2014 Tastemakers Issue)
It was a huge morning for the St. Louis food and drink scene, with six chefs and one restaurant, Taste, landing on the 2014 James Beard Foundation’s chef and restaurant award semifinalists list.
Often called the “Oscars of the food world,” the annual James Beard Awards recognize top culinary talent across the United States. Every year, the foundation announces the semifinalists first during a special ceremony, which took place this morning in Orlando.
The first St. Louis semifinalist announcement came in the Rising Star Chef of the Year category, with Quincy Street Bistro’s Rick Lewis making the cut. Chefs in this category are under 30 and poised to do “big things in the future,” the awards ceremony announcer said.
Then, Taste landed in the Outstanding Bar Program category and five St. Louis chefs in the Best Chef: Midwest category: Farmhaus’ Kevin Willmann, The Libertine’s Josh Galliano, Niche’s Gerard Craft, Elaia’s Ben Poremba and Sidney Street Café’s Kevin Nashan. This is a first-ever nomination for Poremba, who opened Elaia and Olio in late 2012 and has since received a ton of national attention for the restaurant and wine bar. The remainder of the chefs have been featured on the semifinalist list in previous years.
From this point, James Beard judges from across the country will review the semifinalist lists and narrow them down to a final list of nominees. The award nominees will be announced on Tue., March 18, in Chicago, and the winners will be announced at the foundation’s annual award gala in New York City in May.
In the meantime, we checked in with the St. Louis semifinalists for their reactions to the big news:
How did you feel when you found out about the semifinalist nomination?
“Completely unbelievable. I’m just totally shocked. I’ve never tried to do more than put out a good product at our family bar and grill. I’m just trying to make things better. So this is crazy unexpected. It’s a total honor.” – Rick Lewis, chef at Quincy Street Bistro
“I was hanging out with my kids, watching Big Block Sing Song when I heard my phone blow up. I had forgotten that the announcements were today, and in a way, I think it was a better surprise because I had forgotten. Once I saw my phone, I was excited, like a kid on Christmas.” – Josh Galliano, executive chef at The Libertine
“Honored. I was also extremely excited to see Kyle Mathis get some much deserved recognition for our bar Taste.” – Gerard Craft, owner of Craft Restaurants Ltd.
“I feel proud. It’s kind of a mixed sense of pride and surprise. I’m super humbled to be part of such of a great team [of nominees]. These are the people I look up to, and many of them have been at this longer than I have.” – Ben Poremba, executive chef/owner at Elaia and Olio
“It’s always good to be on the bus. You always put your finger out; sometimes they pick you up and sometimes they don’t. Honestly, it’s just really cool what happened for St. Louis. You’re always excited to share good news with people and fellow people you respect. It’s always cool to share that moment.” – Kevin Nashan, chef/owner at Sidney Street Café
“It is always a validating feeling when we are recognized for our work. It’s like swimming upstream running a place like ours. It always feels good to get a cookie every once in a while. Keeps us going for sure.” –Kevin Willmann, chef/owner at Farmhaus
What do you strive to do in the kitchen every day?
“I try to improve and learn something new everyday at The Libertine. It’s a little bit of a hokey answer, but it guides a lot of what I and our crew do at work. We try to constantly improve our recipes, our techniques, and our food so that the guest has the best experience possible. So, we are working on refining our menu and then getting ready to change menus and keep up with all the cool ingredients that our farmers bring to us.” – Josh Galliano, executive chef at The Libertine
“Every day at Niche we push ourselves to be a better restaurant. We are constantly asking ourselves what we can do better.” – Gerard Craft, owner of Craft Restaurants Ltd.
“As a restaurant owner and then as a chef, I strive to make people feel happy, satisfied and special in whatever we do. We want to make right by them.” – Ben Poremba, executive chef/owner at Elaia and Olio
“We’re just trying to offer a really good, wholesome, from-scratch product. We’re trying to what we do the best we can every day … and make it inviting to everyone.” – Rick Lewis, chef at Quincy Street Bistro
What does this say about the St. Louis food scene as a whole?
“St Louis’ representation shows how much we have grown. All of the people on the list are amazing chefs and all have added so much to the St. Louis dining scene. I really feel like St. Louis has one of the fastest growing restaurant scenes in the Midwest outside of Chicago.” – Gerard Craft, owner of Craft Restaurants Ltd.
“I think it’s really cool. You’re finally getting loads of places and good talent. There are a lot of great cooks and chefs in this town. [It used to be that] a lot of them would move to bigger towns to spread their wings and move on to bigger and better things. Now, more are staying here, and you’re getting better restaurants, and it’s cool that places like Quincy Street Bistro are getting recognition on that kind of level.” – Rick Lewis, chef at Quincy Street Bistro
“When people look at the long list of nominations, I want them to see all the St. Louis folks on there and think, “What the hell is going on in St. Louis?!” And hopefully, that gets them to visit our city and restaurants and bakeries and shops more. The amount of nominations is phenomenal and I think it can be viewed in a way that we are all striving to push St. Louis into the forefront of food awareness locally and nationally. Another way of looking at it is that we have been doing that and the nominations are a recognition of getting into that national limelight. I don’t think we’ve made it yet as a food city or region that is nationally recognized, but we are laying the foundation to put St. Louis up there with the bigger food and beverage cities. I like that we haven’t made it yet; it leaves that chip on our shoulders and makes all of us work a little harder to make great food and drinks happen.” – Josh Galliano, executive chef at The Libertine
“It’s a major punch in the face. It’s one thing to step on someone’s toes or to get a cut, but this is a solid, ‘listen, pick your head up; there’s something going on here.’” – Kevin Nashan, chef/owner at Sidney Street Café
“St. Louis is solidly on the map and I love it! I’m excited for everybody.” – Kevin Willmann, chef/owner at Farmhaus
Quincy Street Bistro, 6931 Gravois Ave., 314.353.1588, quincystreetbistro.com
Sidney Street Café, 2000 Sidney St., Benton Park, 314.771.5777, sidneystreetcafe.com
Niche, 7734 Forsyth Blvd., Clayton, nichestlouis.com
Elaia and Olio, 1634 Tower Grove Ave., Botanical Heights, 314.932.1088; elaiastl.com, oliostl.com
The Libertine, 7927 Forsyth Blvd., Clayton, 314.862.2999, libertinestl.com
Farmhaus, 3527 Ivanhoe, Lindenwood, 314.647.3800, farmhausrestaurant.com