The 2012 James Beard Award semifinalists were announced Tuesday and Florida restaurants were represented in greater numbers than ever before.
Nominated by local food writers and a national panel of James Beard Foundation judges, this year's Tampa Bay nominees are Richard Gonzmart, owner of the Columbia, in the outstanding restaurateur category, and Refinery co-owner and chef Greg Baker and SideBern's executive chef Chad Johnson, both in the regional category of Best Chef South.
Outstanding restaurateur nominations are for those who have worked 10 years or more in the field. Gonzmart's nomination reflects his experience as fourth-generation owner of the 107-year-old Ybor City classic and other subsequent Columbia locations, as well as his numerous other projects (a wine label and tequila) and contributions to local and regional causes. Gonzmart faces steep competition for this year's award from Stephen Starr of Philadelphia and New York City restaurateurs Bruce and Eric Bromberg.
"This is my first nomination," Gonzmart said. "I never thought they'd consider the Columbia. I thought these awards were meant for small, new restaurants. It's taken 107 years to get here."
Asked how the nomination affected him, Gonzmart paused and then said, "When I think about this, it makes me want to cry. I'm just a caretaker. This means we've succeeded in staying current and being a leader in the industry. When my mom was alive we had some difficult times, and knowing that I have the respect of the James Beard committee means the world to me."
In the regional "best chef" categories, nominees must have worked in the area for a minimum of three years and been working as a chef at least five. Baker, who was nominated last year, and Johnson will compete against fellow Floridians Clay Conley of Buccan in Palm Beach; Paula DaSilva of 1500 Degrees at Eden Roc Renaissance Miami Beach; Scott Hunnel of Victoria & Albert's at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa; Jeff McInnis of Yardbird Southern Table & Bar in Miami Beach; Sergio Navarro of Pubbelly in Miami Beach; James and Julie Petrakis of the Ravenous Pig in Winter Park; Jeanie Roland of the Perfect Caper in Punta Gorda; and Henry Salgado of Spanish River Grill in New Smyrna Beach.
What does a Beard nomination mean for a restaurant?
"We saw almost overnight a 60 percent spike in business. That went on for a good six weeks and we've seen consistent growth month to month since then," Baker said of last year's nomination announcement.
The increase in Florida representation is a good sign, Baker said, a reflection of increasing growth and culinary sophistication in the state. This year's nominees come from throughout the state, not just Miami as has been the norm.
"I think it's a sign that Central Florida is coming in to its own," Baker said.
The five finalists in each category will be announced March 19 and the winners will be revealed at a gala annual event and dinner in New York City on May 7.
For a complete list of nominees, go to jamesbeard.org.
Laura Reiley can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293.