Chris Ponte, chef-owner of Cafe Ponte in Clearwater and On Swann in Tampa, was clearly recovering from Valentine's Day, a nightmare for chefs and the second busiest restaurant day of the year. (Mother's Day is first.) Ferrell Alvarez of Rooster & the Till in Tampa was coming off two weeks of 16-hour days thanks to some staffing changes.
But on Wednesday morning, their moods took a decided turn for the better: They learned that they had each been named Restaurant and Chef Award semifinalists for the 27th annual James Beard Foundation Awards.
Selected from a list of more than 24,000 online entries, these two Tampa Bay chefs are first-timers to what has become known as the Academy Awards of food. Each has been nominated in the Best Chef: South category, one that in recent years has been dominated by chefs from New Orleans (the South category includes contenders from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Puerto Rico).
Here in the Tampa Bay area, Greg Baker of the Refinery and Chad Johnson of Haven and the Epicurean Hotel have received a number of semifinalist nominations in recent years. And in 2016, Tampa Bay came up gold when Bern's Steak House was named the national winner in the Outstanding Wine Program category. (The only other win ever for our area was when Bern's Steak House sommelier Derrick Pagan won for wine service in 1992.)
For Ponte, who hadn't yet heard about the award when the Times called him shortly after the announcement, there was a little whooping, followed by perspective.
"That's great. After 17 years, I'm honored and excited to be a part of it," he said. "When you travel and see James Beard (plaques) on the wall, you always want to be a part of that club. It's a great honor."
Will he attend the gala if he makes it to the finalist round?
Alvarez, who had just heard the news, felt similarly.
"It's super humbling," he said. "I started washing dishes at 15. It's monumental and encouraging. In Tampa we don't get a lot of shine, so I think this helps us out as a city. But this honor is about my whole crew, about Brian Lampe and my partner Ty Rodriguez and manager Miles Gallagher."
What will Alvarez be doing to celebrate?
"Nothing. I still have a business to run. I keep my head down and nose at the cutting board."
For Ponte's part, he said he might take his wife out for their own belated Valentine's Day celebration.
While Florida was shut out entirely in categories this year from Outstanding Chef to Outstanding Bar Program, Tampa Bay did have another shining star. For the second time, Richard Gonzmart of the Columbia Restaurant Group (the Columbia, Ulele, Goody Goody, with other projects in the works) has been named a semifinalist in the Outstanding Restaurateur category, open only to those who have been in the restaurant business for at least 10 years.
Emailing from an anniversary trip to Bora Bora, Gonzmart said of the nomination: "I am humbled and honored to be recognized. I'm particularly excited because this is a time of great growth for our business, still family-owned since 1905. … No recognition is the work of one person; it always stems from a team effort. None of us is as strong as all of us!"
Here's how these culinary awards work: The James Beard Foundation holds an online open call for entries beginning in mid October of each year. This year, a restaurant and chef committee reviewed 24,000 entries to determine eligibility and regional representation, then produced a nominating ballot that lists the semifinalists in each of the 21 categories. The list of semifinalists is then sent to an independent volunteer panel (past winners and food writer folks like me) of more than 600 judges from across the country to determine the five nominees in each category. Then that same panel of judges selects the winners from those finalists.
Finalists will be announced on March 15 and the winners are announced May 1 at the annual gala, this year held at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Media awards this year will be announced on April 25 at Pier Sixty at Chelsea Piers in New York City.
For the full list of semifinalists, visit jamesbeard.org/awards.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.