Greg Baker, chef and co-owner of Tampa's Refinery and Fodder & Shine, seemed hardly to break stride Wednesday when he learned he had once again been named a semifinalist in this year's James Beard awards.
Putting finishing touches on some menu changes, followed by a finance meeting, it scarcely seemed like the day plan of someone just nominated to what is widely thought of as the Academy Awards of food.
But then, it's his fifth nod in the Best Chef, South category, an honor preceded by a semifinalist designation for the Refinery in 2011 for Best New Restaurant.
Joining Baker this year is a semifinalist nomination for Bern's Steak House for Best Wine Program, an honor for which the fabled Tampa restaurant made it to the finalist round in 2015. Bern's has also been named semifinalist for Outstanding Restaurant in past years and is the only restaurant in our area ever to win a James Beard award, in 1992 when Bern's Steak House sommelier Derrick Pagan won for wine service.
Of the nomination, Bern's Steak House owner David Laxer said, "It is truly an honor to be nominated as a semifinalist for the second year. … Our sommeliers work tirelessly to maintain the integrity of our program and our list, which dates back 60 years. Congratulations to all the semifinalists, including our friend Greg Baker of the Refinery."
Technically, the Tampa Bay area had a third nominee this round, with restaurateur Michael Mina, co-owner of St. Petersburg's Locale Market and FarmTable Kitchen, picking up yet another accolade in the Outstanding Restaurateur category, largely on the strength of his numerous California restaurants.
Florida had an especially weak showing this year, with Alter in Miami picking up a nod for Best New Restaurant and its chef, Bradley Kilgore, receiving a nod for Rising Star Chef. Antonio Bachour of the St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort in Bal Harbour was among the semifinalists in the Outstanding Pastry Chef category. Florida was shut out entirely in categories from Outstanding Bar Program to Outstanding Service.
The state's other contenders for Best Chef, South included Kathleen Blake of the Rusty Spoon in Orlando, perennial favorite Scott Hunnel of Victoria & Albert's at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort, Deme Lomas of Niu Kitchen in Miami, José Mendín of Pubbelly in Miami Beach, James and Julie Petrakis of the Ravenous Pig in Winter Park, Michael Pirolo of Macchialina in Miami Beach and Giorgio Rapicavoli of Eating House in Coral Gables.
Once again, the restaurants of New Orleans dominated the category. Baker has no conspiracy theory, but maybe a geography theory.
"I don't think we're being snubbed geographically," he said. "It's a matter of whose food the judges have eaten. The judges definitely don't get to Tampa, and it's a strike against us."
For him personally, it has been an honor each year to have been included among such eminent chefs, and the nominations translate to a bump in his bottom line ("but none has been as big as the first year, when we went from no one knowing us to being fully booked").
But if he were to have won, he was hoping for it to have been last year. Baker's father died in January, so if he takes home the gold this year on May 2 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, his father won't be there to see him don a medal at the podium. Baker will have to settle for the congratulations of friends and industry colleagues.
"Twitter and text are blowing up," Baker said Wednesday afternoon. "I've had about 15 tweets since we've been on the phone."
A complete list of 2016 semi-finalist nominees can be found at jamesbeard.org.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.