Interview: After historic James Beard win, St. Pete native Edouardo Jordan reflects

Published May 9 2018
Updated May 9 2018

Edouardo Jordan didnít think he stood a chance. He was up against some very strong chefs, and he knew it.

"Iíve eaten at all these restaurants," he said by phone on Tuesday.

His best friend forced him to write a speech for the James Beard Awards, just in case. It was a good call.

The "Academy Awards of food" were Monday night in Chicago. One shining triumph for Florida was St. Petersburg native Jordan, 38, who took home two of the eveningís biggest prizes, both for Best New Restaurant in the country for his Southern star JuneBaby in Seattle as well as for Best Chef: Northwest for himself.

It is the first time a restaurant helmed by an African-American chef has won for best new restaurant; he similarly was the first African-American to make the cover of the annual Food & Wine Best New Chefs publication.

Jordanís acceptance speech was poignant and polished, paying homage to the many talented African-American chefs who preceded him.

"I stand in the shadows of chef Patrick Clark, chef Rodney Scott, chef Nina Compton, chef Dolester Miles, chef Marcus Samuelsson, chef Leah Chase, and all the other chefs that never made it to this stage, but theyíve been pounding their knives against the walls and their cutting boards, and we finally cracked through .?.?. This is a beautiful time in our industry, that weíre able to capture the beautiful color and pictures that actually have made American cuisine ó the food and the history."

The 1998 graduate of Boca Ciega High School grew up around food, Sunday suppers at his grandmaís house, Southern staples like collard greens, chitlins, black-eyed peas and corn bread, as well as more exotic options like possum, raccoon and snapping turtle. Still, he didnít see a career for himself in the restaurant industry, earning dual degrees from the University of Florida in sports management and business administration.

He dabbled with a food blog, which led him to culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Orlando and then a job at Marty Blitzís Mise en Place in Tampa. He made friends with Tampaís food powerhouses, like Ferrell Alvarez, now co-owner of Rooster & the Till. He shared dreams of one day working at the elite French Laundry in Napa Valley.

"Ferrell was the first person in the industry that I connected with, that I believed in," Jordan said.

Jordan fulfilled his dream of working with Thomas Keller at the Laundry, then bounced around California and New York, eventually settling in Seattle, a city he says was striving to become a top food destination.

Reflecting Tuesday on Jordanís double Beard medaling, Alvarez said, "I think itís his time right now because of his hustle and his drive. It shows that itís not all about high-end fancy food, itís about having a story that people connect with."

JuneBaby, which Jordan opened last year blocks away from his flagship Salare, is sometimes described as Southern, other times as African-American. Is there a difference?

"Thatís a topic for a long conversation over whiskey," he said. "The foundation of Southern food is built on the backs of African slaves who were teaching their techniques to the plantation owners, willingly and unwillingly. That was the birth of Southern food; we all grew up on the grounds of Southern food if weíre Americans. JuneBaby is a family-owned, African-American restaurant. Thatís the vibe I wanted to create."

Jordan has returned to St. Petersburg in the past couple years to participate in a youth empowerment event at Childs Park Recreation Center and at the recent Tampa Bay Collard Green Festival in St. Petersburg. And heís come back for events like a guest chef dinner at Rooster & the Till.

Could there be a St. Petersburg restaurant in his future?

"When my journey started, I wanted to be there in St. Pete and Iím really excited about all the growth it has had. But Iím 3,000 miles away and canít see myself jumping on a plane back and forth. Itís two different worlds, and Iíve really embraced Seattle."

Fine, but weíre still claiming the Beard wins as our own.

Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.