Who Is James Beard, Why Does He Matter, and Why Do Our Semifinalists Deserve to Win?

The James Beard semifinalist nominations are in.

The James Beard semifinalist nominations are in.

Every year, culinary communities across the country have Muppets-style freakouts, hands waving in the air, running in and out of view, all over the announcement of James Beard Award nominees. That list came out yesterday, and the Twin Cities have received the biggest showing of all time, so yay, us!

But wait, who is this James Beard dude, and why does he matter anyway?

See also: Local chefs celebrate their James Beard Award nominations

Quickest profile ever:

James Beard was purportedly the "first" chap (nobody is every truly the first, but hey, he got on record with it so there you have it) who suspected that American cookery mattered -- that it was the kind of thing that could stand up on a world platform and mean something; the way that the French revere their pastry and the Italians revere their pastas, Beard revered our native berries and river fishes. He'd appeared on the first televised cooking program in 1946 (though it was of course Julia Child who made that medium famous) and he was a tireless banger of the American cuisine bible -- books, culinary schools, consulting. He stopped at nothing to convince the world: "viva la American food!" Or something like that.

Of course, today it is his foundation that matters, started in the '80s by a student of Beard's, Peter Kump. He bought up Beard's House, now known as the James Beard House (how about that?), where visiting chefs from around the country can cook and chat and hang and do the kinds of things Beard loved all in the interest of continuing to elevate American cooking. Being asked to cook at the house is an honor in itself.

Tim McKee won the Best Chef Midwest award in 2009

Tim McKee won the Best Chef Midwest award in 2009

The Beard Awards are now of course one of dozens of ways food pros can receive accolades. But these are the Oscars of the food world. The foundation is made up of other food pros, other Americans who are at the tip-top of their game -- about 600 peers do the voting, rather than press or diners or anyone else. Peers.

So, locally, what does it mean?

When Tim McKee was bestowed with Best Chef Midwest back in 2009, we were all breathy and lying back on our fainting couches with our big hand fans. We knew that it was a big deal -- this was way back when the Twin Cities was just starting to creep onto the national stage as a serious culinary player. (Can you remember those days? We hardly can.) To be voted the categorical best, in any national food thing, well, that was just the bee's knees.

But what did it mean, really?

McKee was always a stoic, humble sort, but we knew he had the finest restaurant in all the land, La Belle Vie, but also Solera and Smalley's Barbecue. But now that he had this award, he was like a state hero. He had some bumps with former partner Josh Thoma, which we'll leave to you to Google if you wish to know more, but then in a sort of industry exploding way he got scooped up by the people of Parasole. The restaurant group asked him to bestow his genius touches on their restaurants that were generally not good enough -- not by national standards.

So for example Cafeteria, that once schizophrenic blue and orange cafe that served waffles and Gulf shrimp scampi and BBQ ribs and a "hippie salad" on the same menu is now Libertine, an ingenious steakhouse for the Millennial set -- affordable, hip, and approachable. And, delicious.

McKee is widely considered to be the godfather of Twin Cities cuisine -- much like Beard is on a national scale. Not because of his award of course, but because the award brought all of this into focus.

Who are this year's local semifinalists and why do they deserve to win?

Spoon and Stable for Best New Restaurant:

No surprise here, folks. Even if you have the most passing interest in food, you will have heard of Spoon and Stable, brought to you by native Minnesotan Gavin Kaysen, who has spent most of his career working at some of the finest New York City restaurants, the kinds of places that can stand up to the best in the world. He came home to Minnesota, as lots of people do, for a wholesome place to raise kids, the 15,000 lakes, and we assume, the ice fishing.

Interestingly, Minnesotans have been decidedly ambivalent about the place. Perhaps it was the parade that led up to the opening -- it can be difficult if you follow a marching band down the street and instead of winding up at the Super Bowl you land at a hometown ballgame -- but that's what Kaysen has always said S&S was going to be. It's an approachable restaurant for Minnesotans, meant for all occasions, both casual and fine. Is it the best new restaurant in America? The jury is out. Seems like Minnesotans are more discerning than we give ourselves credit for.

La Belle Vie for Outstanding Restaurant:

Here we go again. Until someone comes along to knock it off its platform in some real way, Tim McKee's La Belle Vie is still the best restaurant in Minnesota, at least by fine dining standards. However, it recently lost its chef de cuisine Mike DeCamp, who is moving to Jester Concepts to open a restaurant in the old Porter and Frye space in the Ivy Hotel. We have our eyes trained on LBV to see what will happen with the kitchen next.

Alex Robert's Alma for Outstanding Service:

The restaurant everyone dreams of, both from a restaurateur's standpoint as well as a diner's. If you live in a neighborhood, you want to live in the one where Alma is situated. If you've done the hard work of opening (and keeping open) a restaurant, this is the one you probably dream of. Precise, national-level food, unpretentious, with the kind of service ethic that will keep you remembering it for years. It's like being welcomed into a home.

Spoon and Stable is up for Best New Restaurant

Spoon and Stable is up for Best New Restaurant

Kim Bartmann of Bryant-Lake Bowl, Tiny Diner, the Third Bird, Red Stag, and several other area restaurants for Outstanding Restaurateur:

She opens restaurants at the pace most of us turn our attentions to a new mini-series. And while you're getting to the season finale of Broad City, she's busy greening her establishments so that they adhere to best-in-class renewable energy and positive environmental impact standards. Factor in her legendary summer street festivals and this woman is responsible for a sizable chunk of what makes Minneapolis so livable.

John Kraus of Patisserie 46 for Outstanding Baker:

See today's story on Kraus for a glimpse into his showing at the world culinary competition Coupe du Monde, where his pastry team took bronze, otherwise known as third best in the world. Suffice it to say he's a master pastry chef with a prowess for creating the kinds of fine French pastry you would otherwise have to hop a plane for. There's nothing else like it in town, and it could literally exist, and thrive, anywhere in the world. Steve Horton of Rustica for Outstanding Baker:

Before we had P46 we had Rustica, adhering to European bread traditions not really seen around here before, but since are catching on: long fermentation times, handmade, and no shortcuts. There's no better chocolate or chocolate chip cookies on planet earth. Eric Seed of Haus Alpenz Outstanding Wine, Spirits, or Beer Professional:

Did you drink a cocktail of Cardamaro, Punt e Mes, Smith and Cross, and Appleton VX last night? You just might have Seed to thank. He supplies many top barmen with their rare and elusive spirits and is therefore an integral part of our serious pre-Prohibition local cocktail scene.

For Best Chef Midwest -- this year, seven local nominees!

Heyday's Jim Christiansen is up for Best Chef Midwest

Heyday's Jim Christiansen is up for Best Chef Midwest

Paul Berglund of the Bachelor Farmer:

For his steadfast attention to Nordic cooking that's at once classic and fresh.

Mike Brown, Bob Gerken, and James Winberg of Travail Kitchen and Amusements:

For a restaurant that's a nightly rollicking party that just happens to serve world-class cuisine, and sometimes, crickets.

Jim Christiansen of Heyday: For coming along and almost out of nowhere creating food that is contemporary in a way that makes your eyes pop out of your head with surprise but manages not to alienate. We hope Heyday stays here forever and in a way it feels like it has been.

Doug Flicker of Piccolo: For his dreamy south Minneapolis neighborhood restaurant -- exhilarating tiny bites in a tiny space served by a guy who is on site each and every night doing exactly what he loves with an undetectable ego.

Michelle Gayer of the Salty Tart:

For cupcakes, tarts, and cakes that eat like grown person's food, the Charlie Trotter's alum has the kind of free-form creativity that makes her an artist first and a baker second. You haven't had a coconut macaron until you've had hers.

Russell Klein of Meritage and Brasserie Zentral:

For his indisputable best-in-class French and Eastern European brasseries -- pick up these restaurants, drop them in their home regions, and nobody would be the wiser. But they're ours and ours alone and for this the Twin Cities are more world-class than ever.

Lenny Russo of Heartland Restaurant:

For his steadfast commitment to Midwestern ingredient sourcing and bringing a studied and classical dexterity to rainbow trout, local heritage pork, pickles, and even cheese curds.

Much luck to all of the semifinalists!

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