Tampa Bay hit it big yet again Wednesday as the James Beard Foundation announced its "Academy Awards of food" semifinalists.
Greg Baker of Tampa's Refinery and Chad Johnson of Tampa's SideBern's each picked up a Best Chef: South category semifinalist nomination; Bern's Steak House received a nomination for Outstanding Restaurant; and Joey Redner of Tampa's Cigar City Brewing received the nomination for Outstanding Wine, Spirits or Beer Professional.
The foundation announced the semifinalists in a live-streamed event at Orlando's East End Market.
The past few years have been promising for our area. Last year Baker also picked up a Best Chef: South category semifinalist nomination. In 2012 there were nominations for Baker and Johnson in that category, as well as for Richard Gonzmart of the Columbia Restaurant in the Restaurateur category. The Refinery received a nomination in 2011 for Best New Restaurant in the United States (it opened in 2010).
There were no local nominees in 2010, and the year before Bern's was named a semifinalist for the Outstanding Restaurant award and Zack Gross of St. Petersburg's Z Grille was named a semifinalist in the Best Chef: South category.
The last time the Tampa Bay area had a James Beard winner was 1992, the second year the awards were given. Bern's Steak House sommelier Derrick Pagan won for wine service.
So what are our chances this year?
Truth is, the deck is stacked against the Tampa Bay area. It could be argued that we don't have the kind of major culinary school program that draws young talent, or that we don't have a critical mass of ambitious, high-end restaurants that nurtures and trains would-be cooking stars. Both of those things may be true. But it's really a function of judge geography.
Semifinalists were generated via an open call online in October; anyone could submit up to two entries per category. But for the finalists and winners, the judging group, composed of previous winners, food writers and food industry folks, can vote only for those restaurants and those chefs whose food they've eaten. Makes sense. But where is it more likely that the nation's "foodies" have been this past year — New York or Tampa Bay? So for categories like Best New Restaurant or Outstanding Service, bigger metro areas are more likely to take the award. In this year's Best New Restaurant category, for example, there were five nominees in New York City and zero in Florida.
The Best Chef categories are broken down by region, but it still favors certain cities. By intention or happenstance (i.e., where the major hub airports are), judges are more likely to dine in Los Angeles than they are in Stockton, Calif. All things being equal, this means more votes go to award hopefuls in L.A.
Still, Baker and Johnson's national reputations have grown enormously by having had semifinalist nods in the past. Each has been recognized by national media for outstanding work, and each has new projects. For Johnson, Élevage at the Epicurean Hotel (a partnership of Bern's Steak House and Tampa-based Mainsail Lodging and Development Group), has received tremendous attention, and Greg and Michelle Baker's second restaurant, Fodder and Shine, is poised to open later this year.
For Joey Redner, widely credited with putting Florida front and center in the country's craft beer craze, the nomination was a surprise. "I didn't even know you could get a Beard award for being in the beer industry. It gives some credence that there's cool stuff happening here," he said.
Baker says he thinks Tampa's craft beer scene may be responsible for 2014's record number of nominations. "Great food scenes pop up around great beer scenes. As people get more refined taste in what they drink they get more refined taste in what they eat. In five short years, Joey has gone from a startup to one of the top four breweries in the world," he said after hearing the news. "How do you like us now? We're Tampa!"
The list of semifinalists for the Restaurant and Chef awards was culled from 40,000 nominations, and from this pool, judges will designate their finalists on March 18, along with their Book, Journalism, Broadcast and Restaurant Design Awards finalists. The award ceremony takes place on May 2 and 5 in New York's Lincoln Center.
Regardless of the outcome, it's time to celebrate the national recognition of these Tampa restaurants. Bern's owner David Laxer said of the win, "Chad, myself, and the team plan on celebrating the success of all our restaurants tonight with Cigar City beer at Élevage!"
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com.