CHICAGO — The James Beard Awards are the Oscars of the food world, coveted by American chefs and food professionals every year.
As with many awards, the winners have traditionally been dominated by the men running fine dining restaurants around the country. Of the 361 awards handed out over 27 years, only 81 have been taken home by women.
The 2017 ceremony was held May 1 in Chicago, and it looks like times are changing.
This year, 27 percent of the semifinalists were female, compared with 19 percent in 2009. That includes chefs, pastry chefs, restaurateurs, wine and beverage professionals and producers.
Two of these 10 nominees took home awards Monday night–Monteverde chef/owner Sarah Grueneberg of Chicago won for Best Chef/Great Lakes and Herbsaint chef de cuisine Rebecca Wilcomb of New Orleans won for Best Chef/South.
Win or lose, we know these nominees’ food and drink is interesting and creative — and it’ll taste good.
Here are 10 of the many American women dominating the food scene, and their recommendations for food and drink.
Diane Flynt, Foggy Ridge Cider, Dugspur, Virginia
Nominated in the Outstanding Wine, Spirits or Beer Professional category, Flynt was a female pioneer in the cider industry and in where she chose to plant her trees — planting cider apples in the Southern Appalachians in the late 1990s.
A 2013 New York Times article put ciders — and specifically her Foggy Ridge Serious Cider — on the map.
Foggy Ridge must-have cider: “I would start with Foggy Ridge First Fruit Cider, which is a field blend of heirloom cider apples that we harvest early each fall. This blend includes the Hewe’s crab apple, which was grown at Monticello by Thomas Jefferson for cider-making, as well as Parmar, an old Virginia brandy apple.”
Favorite non-cider drink made by someone else: “I especially like Claude Thibaut’s sparkling wine made in Virginia, Thibaut-Janisson. Virginia has a thriving wine industry and there are many great growers and winemakers across the state.
“I often reach for Chatham Vineyard’s Church Creek Chardonnay (100% stainless) from the Virginia coast or anything from Blenheim Vineyards near Charlottesville, Virginia.”
Favorite food made by someone else: “I’d walk miles for Sean Brock’s vegetables, but his pig ear appetizer at Husk in Charleston is the perfect Southern “street food”—spicy, salty, chewy with deep flavors and enough messiness to make it extra delicious.”
Foggy Ridge Cider, 1328 State Rd 656, Dugspur, VA 2432; +1276-398-2337
Sarah Grueneberg, Monteverde, Chicago
The 2017 winner for Best Chef/Great Lakes region, Texas native Grueneberg opened Monteverde Restaurant & Pastificio in Chicago — her first restaurant — in November 2015.
Prior to that, she’d cooked at Brennan’s of Houston then moved to Chicago in 2005 to cook for Tony Mantuano at Spiaggia, becoming executive chef there in 2010.
“I’m from Houston and there weren’t a lot of chef-driven restaurants in the early ’90s,” she says. “But when the Food Network came out, that was really it. I was 11 or 12 and watching Emeril [Lagasse] and thinking, this guy is incredible — I could be a chef!”
Monteverde’s must-order dish: The tortelli verde is made with winter spinach, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, roasted white miso, Piedmontese hazelnuts and lemon. “It’s one of my favorite dishes we’ve put on the menu in a long time,” says Grueneberg.
And that pasta is made to order — within three minutes of it being made, it’s being cooked and served to guests.
Favorite dish by someone else: The prawn nigiri at Tokyo’s Sushi Sawada, where chef Koji Sawada and his wife offer just a few seats for some of the best sushi in the city.
“The prawns were live when showed to us, then he steamed them,” she says.
Then Sawada cleaned them, removed the heads, dipped them in batter, fried them, butterflied the bodies, stuffed them with sushi rice, wrapped them back up, then cut them into nigiri pieces.
“Seeing the care he put into it was a moment.”
Monteverde Restaurant & Pastificio, 1020 W Madison St, Chicago, IL 60607; +1 312-888-3041
Rebecca Wilcomb, Herbsaint, New Orleans
The 2017 winner in the Best Chef/South category, Rebecca Wilcomb is chef de cuisine for Herbsaint, executive chief Donald Link’s flagship restaurant in New Orleans, where she has worked since 2008.
“I love to make gnocchi. Love it. We make them every morning at Herbsaint. It’s something you can’t step away from. It’s a time to reflect and to think about the day ahead of you.”
Herbsaint’s must-order dishes: The gumbo, of course. “We rotate between duck and andouille gumbo and chicken and andouille gumbo,” says Wilcomb. “It’s dark and rich and so satisfying.” She also loves the lamb and mushroom lasagna and the Sicilian beef with anchovies and olives, which is a new favorite.
Favorite dish by someone else: The Txipiron “Encebollado” at Txikito in New York City. “It’s this dish of quickly cooked squid ribbons with sweet onions that eats like a thin, tender pasta. It’s perfect and delicious.”
Herbsaint, 701 St. Charles Avenue, New Orleans, Louisiana, 70130; +1 504-524-4114
Gabrielle Hamilton, Prune, New York City
The only woman nominated in the national Outstanding Chef category, Hamilton may still be found in the kitchen at Prune, the tiny restaurant she opened in 1999 on Manhattan’s East First Street.
She’s generally shunned television food shows and the fame that follows. Of course, she’s written a book — she has an MFA in fiction writing after all.
But she’s a truth-teller, which is why Anthony Bourdain calls her Beard award-winning memoir, “Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef,” the best chef memoir ever.
Prune must-have drink and dish: “Oddly, it’s the gin and tonic and the shaved celery salad on blue cheese toast.
“You think it would be impossible to screw up a gin and tonic, and yet — crappy ice, poor ratio of gin to tonic, flat or syrupy tonic, gin that has too many botanicals crowding its purity, stale limes cut too early in the day or even the day before — and you have a very sad cocktail.
“Anyway, I love ours. It pays attention to all of the above mentioned possible pitfalls.
“The celery salad is bracing and crisp and assertive with garlic and lemon and shaved scallion and it goes on top of buttered warm toast with a slice of creamy, salty Cambozola blue cheese.
“It’s hard to explain how just these three components become something so delicious in concert, but that’s kind of a Prune habit — less is more.”
Favorite dish by someone else: “Most recently obsessing over that tuna/foie gras dish at Le Bernardin. Jesus. Christ.”
Prune, 54 E 1st St # 1, New York, NY 10003: +1 212-677-6221
Belinda Leong, b. Patisserie, San Francisco
Nominated in the Outstanding Baker category, along with business partner and fellow pastry chef Michel Suas, Leong started on the savory side of professional cooking. But she had more fun creating all of those souffles and crème brûlée desserts at Restaurant Gary Danko in San Francisco.
After eight years there as pastry chef, she staged with the great pastry chefs of Europe. When she came back, she took classes at the San Francisco Baking Institute, which was founded by French pastry chef Suas after he moved to the US. They became business partners and opened b. Patisserie together in 2013.
b. Patisserie’s must-order dish: The kouign-amann — a Breton pastry whose name means “butter cake” — made b. Patisserie famous.
Favorite dish by someone else: The Hazelnut by Cédric Grolet at Le Meurice in Paris.
b. Patisserie, 2821 California Street, San Francisco, CA 94115; +1 415-440-1700
Amy Brandwein, Centrolina, Washington, D.C.
Nominated for Best Chef/Mid-Atlantic region, Amy Brandwein has launched and led several Italian restaurants over the course of her career and even beat Chef Masaharu Morimoto on the television program “Iron Chef America.”
In 2015, Chef Brandwein launched her own creation, Centrolina, a seasonal Italian restaurant and market in Washington, DC that has quickly become a power lunch spot.
“When I entered my first professional kitchen at [Roberto Donna’s Washington restaurant] Galileo, I was hooked by the energy and electricity of what was around me,” she says. “There was no turning back.”
Centrolina’s must-order dish: Tagliolini and wood-roasted mushrooms. “The pasta is made with very reduced pinot nero and truffles, and the shiitake mushrooms are from Virginia,” says Brandwin. “The whole dish is smoky, woodsy and luxurious without being heavy.”
Favorite dish by someone else: “The best meal I’ve had in the last several years was at Hanjan in New York. Wow. The food was so vibrant and fresh, the execution was excellent and the flavors were interesting and light.
“The crispy rice cakes had amazing texture [and] sweet, sour and spicy flavor. The pork dumplings — yes, I’ve had them before in other places, but these were obviously so incredibly fresh and delicious.”
Centrolina, CityCenterDC, 974 Palmer Alley NW, Washington, DC 20001; +1 202-898-2426
Missy Robbins, Lilia, Brooklyn, New York
Nominated in the Best Chef/New York City category, Missy Robbins grew up around food and hospitality, with grandparents who owned a resort in Wisconsin and parents who took her to fine dining restaurants.
After serving as executive chef for other restaurant owners, she opened Lilia in January 2016 to focus on seasonal, Italian cooking.
“Every single place I cooked had a major influence on my career,” says Robbins. “Spiaggia was big in terms of my Italian education. It was the first time I cooked Italian solo in the states and it was my first big executive chef job. Tony [owner Tony Mantuano] is my biggest mentor.”
Lilia must-have dish: “The Mafaldine pasta and the wood-grilled bass are things that are going to be on the menu forever and are things people come back for and crave.”
She also recommends the grilled clams and the seasonal ramp dishes. “Lilia is the truest version of my cooking ever, where I’ve taken the time to find myself. Every dish is on that menu because I like it,” she says.
Favorite dish by someone else: “Uncle Boon’s [on Spring St, Manhattan] is always a huge favorite. It’s Thai food done so well. Their sausage is pretty unbelievable — it just brings me right back to what I ate when I went to Thailand.”
Lilia, 567 Union Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11222; +1 718-576-3095
Kelly Fields, Willa Jean, New Orleans, Louisiana
Nominated for Outstanding Pastry Chef, South Carolina native Kelly Fields has baked for noted New Orleans chefs Susan Spicer and John Besh, with a break from Besh’s restaurant group after Hurricane Katrina.
Still part of Besh’s restaurant group, now as chef and partner, she opened Willa Jean in August 2015 to serve savory meals and sweet desserts.
“John Besh hired me as the pastry chef at Restaurant August based on a handshake alone,” says Fields.
“He has never let up on that support and quiet confidence, pushing me to pursue excellence in every challenge. John has taught me the true value of hospitality, of serving from the heart, and in my recent evolution to restauranteur, his example of leadership and mentorship inspires me daily to invest in my own team.”
Willa Jean must-have dishes: The New Orleans BBQ shrimp, the Frozen Pimms Cup, Cookies + Milk and the red velvet cake.
Favorite dish by someone else: “Angela Pinkerton’s ‘soda pop’ at Eleven Madison Park completely and totally changed the way I cook. It was such a beautiful dish, and technically driven, but the flavors were bright, simple and nostalgic.
“Most importantly, though, it showed that Chef Pinkerton was having tremendous fun in the kitchen with her team.”
Willa Jean, 611 O’Keefe Ave, New Orleans, LA 70113; +1 504-509-7334
Camille Cogswell, Zahav, Philadelphia
Although Zahav opened seven years before 26-year-old pastry chef Camille Cogswell arrived in December 2015, the Rising Star Chef nominee has clearly made her mark at Mike Solomonov and Steve Cook’s Philadelphia-based ode to Israeli food.
“I’m continuously absorbing all of the pieces of knowledge from all of the people that I work for and who inspire me,” says Cogswell. “I’m beginning to develop a style and dishes that I’m proud of, but I’m not rushing it.”
Zahav must-have dessert: Her take on the Konafi, a traditional Israeli dessert served hot with layers of shredded phyllo dough (kataifi) stuffed with cheese, then drizzled with syrup and ground pistachios.
“Sometimes it’s filled with chocolate ganache, but right now it has a pastry cream filling flavored with labneh yogurt and sachleb (ground orchid root). Its creaminess is reminiscent of the traditional cheese but it’s a little lighter, delicate, and more modern. We serve it with orange sherbet, Cara Cara orange marmalade, and ground Sicilian pistachios.
“It’s such a unique and special dessert in Israeli culture that you won’t find many places in the US.”
Favorite dessert made by someone else: “The desserts at Del Posto in New York, where the Pastry Chef Justine MacNeil kills it every night. My favorite dessert from my most recent trip was a simple lemon ricotta torta with seasoned walnuts, white wine poached pears, a hint of thyme and a black pepper sheep’s milk ricotta gelato.”
Zahav, 237 St James Pl, Philadelphia, PA 19106; +1 215-625-8800
Caroline Styne, The Lucques Group, Los Angeles
Nominated for Outstanding Restaurateur, Los Angeles native Caroline Styne launched her first food product company in 1989 when she was just 22. When she met chef Suzanne Goin a couple years later, a restaurant power duo was born.
They opened their signature restaurant, Lucques, in 1998, followed by a.o.c. in 2002 and Tavern in 2009. Several other restaurants have followed. She’s not just co-owner of the company — she’s been the group’s wine director from the start.
“When I was 25 and had just sold off my interest in my food product company, I was sitting in an adorable bustling cafe in Santa Monica and realized that what I really wanted to do every day was to create a warm place, like the one I was sitting in, where I could feed people and provide a place where people could gather to see friends, pass time, celebrate and feel at home.”
Must-have dish: “This is a hard question as it’s like having to choose a favorite child. But, I am in love with one of our platters at a.o.c., the grilled whole fish with coconut rice, bok choy, lemongrass sambal and peanuts.”
Favorite restaurant run by someone else: “Republique in Los Angeles. I love the feeling and energy of the rooms and the history of the building; it is the former home of Nancy SIlverton’s Campanile restaurant and La Brea Bakery. I love that it has a little bit of everything — a little bit bar, and little bit bakery, a little bit grown-up restaurant, a little bit casual lunch spot, a little bit of a wine mecca.”
Favorite restaurant wine program by someone else: La Ciau del Tornavento in Barbaresco, Italy. “This place is a wine lover’s version of paradise, and that is an understatement. Their wine cellar is vast and beautiful and laden with every major wine in every major vintage and in every bottle size.”
Lucques (first restaurant), 8474 Melrose Ave, West Hollywood, CA 90069; +1 323-655-6277