James Beard Awards: The 2012 rookie class

Get to know the local talent that will be repping NYC for the first time this year.

Photograph: Evaan Kheraj
Ghaya Oliveira

The James Beard Awards—the “Oscars of the food world” goes the old chestnut—unfold on Monday, May 7, with a star-studded NYC gala at Avery Fisher Hall. Your friendly Food & Drink staffers will be live on site, delivering all the juicy cocktail chatter, victory speech highlights and more from @thefeednyc. In advance of the big day, we sat down with six first-time nominees representing New York City to talk about the relevance of a Beard these days, and what taking home the coveted medal would mean for them.

Read on for interviews with Del Posto’s Mark Ladner, Seamus Mullen of Tertulia, Ghaya Oliveira of Boulud Sud and Isa’s Ignacio Mattos. We also hit up fellow rookie nominees Jim Meehan (PDT) and Audrey Saunders (Pegu Club) to discuss the Outstanding Bar Program category, new to the 2012 awards.

 

Mark Ladner

Del Posto
Nominee: Best Chef NYC

What do you think is the relevance of a Beard Award these days? 
A James Beard award is, and will always be, the culinary equivalent of an Oscar, Emmy, Grammy or Pulitzer. It’s nice to be recognized for your work. But for me, regardless of awards, I just want to be in the kitchen and be a force of inspiration for our staff to make and serve delicious, healthy food.

The era of casual dining has taken hold in a big way recently. Otto and Lupa have always been in that mold, but have your views changed at all on the role of the white-table-cloth experience at Del Posto?
Del Posto provides sterling-silver flatware, handblown crystal, Egyptian cotton linens and vintage Italian porcelain. We operate a fine-dining restaurant presided over by at least 75 highly trained and committed, professional employees each service. We offer the hospitality of gratis snacks throughout every meal. We have the infrastructure to ensure that all of our guests leave satisfied, regardless of dietary restrictions or personal preferences. We are in the business of offering the highest level of service.

What we provide is a radical departure from restaurants with no reservations and paper napkins, or joints with tasty food, but uncomfortable dining environments. Even our bar stools are engineered for luxury. We employ a gentleman whose job is to repair said bar stools when they no longer provide true comfort. We are extremely grateful for our beloved clientele; guests who appreciate what we do. And thank goodness New York City is diverse and sophisticated enough as to still allow for “adult” restaurants like Del Posto to exist.

That said, nothing delights us more than a couple that has saved up for a great formal experience at Del Posto. Those guests give us the privilege of showing them the respect people were treated with in more romantic times gone by—think Downton Abbey. Don’t get me wrong, I love casual restaurants. Nearly all of my training has been in casual restaurants. But what we try to accomplish at Del Posto, and what a more casual place tries to do, is just plain different. Those fundamental differences mean that an expensive fine-dining destination restaurant and an inexpensive casual neighborhood restaurant should not be evaluated by the same scale or list of criteria.

Amenities ain’t cheap! Essentially Del Posto is a stiff middle finger to the casualization of our society.

We won’t make you weigh in on your competition at the Beards. But who are some of your favorite chefs in NYC, and what do you appreciate about them?
Any and all chefs and food professionals in this city that show up for work every day, pay and treat their staff fairly, and contribute to the overall well being of New York, the greatest city in the world. I am humbled by all young cooks out there pushing American food forward. I am also inspired by all the dieticians and nutritionists that try to keep garbage out of the system. We owe it to the next generation!

What drink will you celebrate with if you happen to win?
Many bottles of Estrella Damm Inedit, the true champagne of beers. (No offense to Miller High Life…love you, too!)

 

Ignacio Mattos

Isa 
Nominee
: Best New Restaurant

This is your first James Beard Award nomination. How did you react when you heard the news?
I was at the restaurant and people [started] texting me congratulations. It’s really gratifying to hear that there is an appreciation and a respect for what we’re doing [at Isa].

Isa, which is known for its avant-garde cooking and psychedelic design elements, has been described by various critics as “peculiar,” “quirky” and “oddball.” Some critics, like our own Jay Cheshes, gave it high marks, but others were baffled. Did you expect this kind of reception when you set out to open the restaurant?
Yes, we did, and it’s part of the game. It’s interesting to get divided reviews, but we are more of a destination place and we depend on them financially.

You describe your food as “primitive modernism,” but others have classified it under the New Nordic category. Are places like Noma in Copenhagen and Mathias Dahlgren in Stockholm a source of inspiration for your cooking?
We are not New Nordic cuisine. It has an extremely important impact on how we look at food, but our food is pretty rustic and it’s more complex. I don’t know René Redzepi [the chef of Noma], but Mathias is a friend and we share a lot of ideas. Also, Andoni Luis Aduriz was cooking with all-local products and wild, foraged ingredients at Mugaritz in the Basque country when I visited in 2003. He kind of started it—the whole wave of cooking with cleaner, fresher and foraged [ingredients]. But everybody was probably focused on Ferran Adrià, so not many people know about that.

Speaking of foraging, New York restaurants have long boasted seasonal, Greenmarket ingredients. But Isa—along with new spots like Acme, Frej and Atera—seem to be taking locavorism one step further with a commitment to wild produce. Is this the start of a larger forager movement in New York?
Yes, it is. The first time Mads Refslund [the chef of Acme] came [to Isa] to eat, we talked about the possibilities of working together, like chefs from different restaurants [trading off] foraging for everybody and trying to build a community of sharing.

Isa hosts some unusual events that you don’t see at other New York restaurants. Yoga Tuesdays, Brunchcraft for Kids on the weekends and the one-off Chances with Wolves “séance disco” dance party. How do these activities relate to what you are doing in the kitchen and the overall vision for the restaurant?
I am trying to create the same thing, a community. We wanted the idea of the restaurant to be more eclectic, not just for foodies—a place for open-minded people, where they can [go for yoga] and afterwards sit down for dinner. People have a strange perception of what we do that was somehow [translated] to arrogance. We [just] wanted a bit more of freedom.

You’ve gone on the record with Lauren Shockey at the Village Voice saying that New York’s dining scene is behind Stockholm and Japan. Why do you think New York is trailing other international cities in culinary creativity?
You go to Japan and it’s such careful craftsmanship—a guy focuses on doing a specific thing like soba. In America, people expect to have options and options. I think trying to please everyone with too many options, rather than focusing on what you are good at, has been dragging New York [down]. Also, there are more financial pressures in New York, so [that] really shatters creativity. In Europe, they are ahead because they commit to something and nobody really complains. I’m not saying they don’t struggle. They struggle. We all struggle.

What’s next for you?
We [might] open the second floor of Isa for more tables and private dining in the summer.

If you win, how will you celebrate?
I’m not really good at planning those kind of things. I’ll go for drinks and food with all the staff.

 

Seamus Mullen

Tertulia
Nominee:
 Best New Restaurant

This is your first James Beard Award nomination. How did you react when you heard the news?
We were huddled around a laptop in the back of the restaurant in the middle of lunch service.… Man, I had no idea there were so many categories! We listened for a whole hour before they got to our category. We were also the last restaurant named in our category, which was nerve-racking. When we heard “Tertulia,” we all flipped, we couldn’t believe it—it’s such an honor just to be nominated.

Even for a town full of buzzy chefs and restaurants, the reception for Tertulia has been off the charts. Everyone from Martha Stewart to The New York Timeshas raved about it. And of course, you won Time Out’s Chef of the Year honors earlier this month. How does the reality compare to your expectations and goals going in?
We knew that our food was going to be solid, and the space is so personal, I had a feeling it was going to be a big hit, but of course, I couldn’t have imagined it was going to be as universally well received as it has been. It’s a great feeling, and I’m so proud of our team and all the hard work they put in every night.

The place has been big for celebrity sightings. Now that Jay-Z has dined at Tertulia, do you think Ibérico ham could be the new luxury foodstuff that rappers shout-out to show that they’re flossing?
I’m so not cool. I don’t understand the flossing thing. Does this mean they will be getting Ibérico ham stuck in their teeth? I dunno…Jay-Z doesn’t eat pork, so I think we’re okay. Ibérico can continue to fly just beneath the radar.

Your new cookbook, Hero Food, is inspired by the healthier foods you started eating after being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Are there items on the menu at Tertulia that fit the hero-food diet?
There are a ton of things on the menu that are hero food. When I was first diagnosed, I made a list of all the things I loved to cook with and loved to eat, and then I started looking at these ingredients from a nutritional point of view. I was blown away to find out that nearly everything I loved cooking with was actually quite good for me. I looked around at a lot of the books on food and wellness, and none of them inspired me to cook—most of the recipes were pretty gnarly. That’s when I decided it was time for a book that celebrated ingredients and had, at its forefront, food that was tasty. The hope is that we’ll forget this food is good for us and just cook it because it’s good.

What did you think of Next (another Best New Restaurant nominee) doing its El Bulli menu in Chicago? Does that school of Spanish gastronomy—and that approach to re-creation—interest you?
I think it’s great. It’s an homage to the most influential kitchen of our time. When I worked with Andoni [Aduriz], he told me about being at El Bulli in the early ’90s and all the nights with zero covers, yet Ferran [Adrià] was tireless and refused to give up. It was one of the lessons Ferran taught Andoni, and Andoni taught me: Persevere; don’t give up if you feel real conviction. I think it’s wonderful that Next is tackling such ambitious projects. One more reason to visit Chicago.

Have you had a chance to eat at any of the other restaurants nominated for Best New Restaurant, especially your NYC brethren, Isa?
Um, I wish I could say it sucked, but Isa was pretty great. Seriously. Each dish was subtle and delicate and beautifully executed. Ignacio [Mattos] is a terrifically talented cook, and I tip my hat to him for cooking from his heart. It takes a lot of courage to open a restaurant like Isa—it’s the antithesis of the cookie-cutter concept restaurant. Oh, and [pastry chef Pam Yung’s] desserts rock.

If you had to put forward one dish to represent what Tertulia is all about, what would it be and why?
Right now, it would be huevo y bacalao. It’s our version of a deviled egg, but it has whipped salt-cod in the yolk. The bacalao is smoked in our wood-fired grill, and the whites of the eggs are smoked as well. The end result is one perfect, eggy, bacalao-y, smoky bite.

How would you celebrate a win at the JBAs?
Throwing down with my crew at Tertulia! How else?

Ghaya Oliveira

Boulud Sud
Nominee:
 Outstanding Pastry Chef

This is your first James Beard Award nomination. How did you react when you heard the news?
I was out shopping for a farewell gift for a dear coworker when I received a message that almost put me in a state of shock. Suddenly I let out an involuntary yelp of joy, scaring everyone around me. My immediate reaction was to call my family, my team, the restaurant family, all of them all at once.… The news completely overwhelmed me. The next day when I got to work, my pastry team was jumping for joy, and the kitchen staff started applauding me, so I applauded them back, because the nomination is really the result of our teamwork, every single day for the past 11 years.

If you won, this would be the ninth Beard for the Dinex Group. What is the relevance of a Beard Award these days, and what would it mean for you?
Given the abundance of food buzz these days, a James Beard Award, with its industry recognition from your peers, is of particularly great value. I arrived in New York City in 2001 and immediately landed at Café Boulud, so I’ve been fortunate to work in kitchens where the standard of excellence is high. Now more than ever, I can feel I contribute to that. With Boulud Sud’s Mediterranean menu, there’s also a note of personal pride, creating desserts that reflect my own Tunisian culture and origins. Baklava, anyone?

What’s something you’re doing now that you don’t think you could have pulled off in the early days?
As I was growing up, I would watch the ladies in my family gather together to make the Tunisian sweets for big holidays. It would take them days to put these together. I never thought that I would have the chance to reproduce these sweets at a restaurant level, not to mention in another country, in a different world really.

It’s been a banner few years for pastry chefs, between Top Chef Just Dessertsand people like Christina Tosi racking up name-brand acclaim. Do you feel like there’s a changing conception of pastry chefs?
It’s been a banner few years. But I’ve had a sense things were evolving. One day my mentor, chef Eric Bertoia, said, “You will see; in 50 years the pastry world will take over.” It seems like it’s already on its way.

What happened during the past year that you think caught the eye of the Foundation?
It’s the whole Mediterranean thing: earthy ingredients, with pure ingredients and flavors, from the good olive oil to the variety of nuts and different combinations of spices. The Mediterranean inspiration has also enabled me to evoke desserts from my own culture, dishes that really have a soul for me.

Where can we see the influence of your heritage on the menu?
Actually it pops up in a number of places, some subtle and some more evident. The grapefruit givré—our most popular dessert—is French and Turkish in origin. The rhubarbmousseux, is provençal in origin, but the rose gelato I serve it with reminds me of home when my mom makes the rose jam. The closest to home is the pistachio baklava on our Mediterranean sweets plate, and above all the ourta, a multilayered torte of caramelized brick dough layered with Sicilian pistachios, almonds, pine nuts and hazelnuts, and topped with warm orange-blossom cream.

If you win, how will you celebrate?
I am sure our dear sommelier will saber a methusalem of Cristal! It’s his thing.

Jim Meehan

PDT
Nominee: Outstanding Bar Program

This is your first James Beard Award nomination. How did you react when you heard the news?
I was in Paris at a bar show. My wife was monitoring the announcement of the nominees from Las Vegas and texting them to me. I had no idea what to expect since this is the first year for the category, and I was thrilled to hear we made the short list.

You’ve been vocal about your goal to see cocktails acknowledged as a culinary art. Do you see the creation of a cocktail category at the James Beard Awards to be a banner moment? A past-due concession?
A banner moment for sure: The most prestigious culinary organization in the country is now recognizing the value of a cocktail program alongside the achievements of our greatest chefs. I’ve always hoped for the bar and kitchen to have a more collaborative relationship in restaurants with cooks and bartenders standing on similar footing. The award incentivizes this, dangling a carrot that we’re all eager to pursue.

What is the relevance of a Beard Award these days? How does it compare to a Michelin ranking, a StarChefs or Spirited Award?
I suppose it all depends on whom you ask. As honored and humbled as we are to be bestowed with awards and accolades, we work in a city that evaluates its bars and restaurants on a “what have you done for me lately” basis. I’d be lying if I told you the awards didn’t matter to me, but I’d be cheating my staff and our customers if I let those distinctions, or the pursuit of them, go to my head.

New York is often name-checked as the cradle of the modern cocktail movement, but only two bars from our fair city were short-listed. Do you feel pressure to be an ambassador for NYC?
It’s a national award and there are a lot of great cocktail bars in this country. I’m not quite sure how the nominees were chosen, but I believe geographic diversity was important to the judges. Regardless of the protocol, I’m always proud to represent this city: I wouldn’t be where I am professionally without it.

Among your conominees this year is one of your mentors, Audrey Saunders of Pegu Club. You’ve been down this road before, in 2009, when you were both nominated in the American Bartender of the Year category at the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards. Does competing with a mentor change the nature of the awards for you?
To be honest, I don’t feel like we’re competing and I’ve never once felt that an award made me, or my bar, better than anyone else’s. I’m friendly with all the operators of the bars nominated and will be genuinely pleased to congratulate the winner this year. When Audrey, Toby Maloney, Thad Vogler or Craig Schoettler wake up in the morning, I can guarantee you that they’re not worried about how they rank among other bars and bartenders: They’re 100 percent focused on refining their approach to the craft and communicating that to their staff. Toby left Pegu to open Violet Hour and I left to open PDT: I feel like Audrey and Pegu’s accomplishments have been duly recognized regardless of who wins the award this year.

We’ve talked about the legacy of PDT, and the role it played in the rise of less formal cocktail joints. What other qualities does PDT have that helped catch the Foundation’s eye over other New York bars?
The judging process is a bit of a mystery to me, and I’ve done my best to keep it that way. With that said, it’s tough to determine what qualities distinguished PDT among the cities top bars. My best guess would be that I worked in restaurants before cocktail bars and have always sought out opportunities to serve cocktails at culinary events, which have afforded us the opportunity to work alongside great restaurants and chefs. I’ve relished the opportunity to accommodate chefs as guests at the bar, so perhaps this is just a little of what goes around coming around.

What’s something you’re doing now that you don’t think you could have pulled off in the early days?
Where do I begin? I suppose the biggest difference between me now and then is my willingness to accept our shortcomings, individually and collectively, as an opportunity. Danny Meyer once told me that perfection isn’t the goal, it’s excellence. For many years, I pursued that personally, arguably to the detriment of the teams I worked alongside. Nowadays, I spend my time scheming up ways to bring everyone into the fold, even if it creates chaos in the short term. I was too focused and immature to operate like this in the beginning.

The PDT Cocktail Book told the story of the evolution of a beloved New York bar. But, coupled with other standard-bearing books, it also helped codify the lineage of bartenders and their recipes—a hot topic in the bar community right now. What’s your take?
I’ve had the privilege of editing the last six editions of Food & Wine’s annual cocktail book with Kate Krader. Our latest guide should hit the stands this week. For me, theFood & Wine book has functioned as a yearbook of sorts, chronicling the latest trends, documenting the growing community and featuring recipes from the country’s most celebrated bartenders.

I had to check myself when I started compiling recipes for the PDT book. Unlike Food & Wine, or the four editions of Mr. Boston’s Bar Guide I worked on with Anthony Giglio, the PDT book is not about bringing the most talented bartenders into the mix: It’s a historical document about what a handful of people did between 2007 to 2010 on St. Marks Place. Ironically, most of them have moved on.

Whether I’ve canonized anyone’s recipes or not, I’ve never worked with a better group than the one I have now, and even though many of them aren’t featured in the book or famous for a particular recipe, if any of them want my lineage, they’ve earned it.

What’s next for you?
I’m taking a Bill Belichick approach to my career right now: complete with the hoodie! I’ll be in Austin for the Food & Wine Festival before the Beard Awards, then, I’ll be participating in the Manhattan Cocktail Classic, Aspen Food & Wine, and Tales of the Cocktail a month later. I’m still concentrating on promoting my book and taking things one day at a time with the bar. I haven’t accomplished everything I’d like to at PDT. When I do, I’ll start thinking about what’s next.

If you win, how will you celebrate?
I’m planning on losing to avoid any disappointment. I asked Wylie Dufresne how to approach the awards, and he told me he’s been up for one for eight years now: the longest running annual contender. Whether we win or lose, I’m going to relish being there.

Audrey Saunders

Pegu Club
Nominee: Outstanding Bar Program

For two decades, there was no cocktail equivalent to the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Wine Program award. That changed this year with the creation of a cocktail category. How do you feel about that?
[Even without a dedicated category], there was [always] an opportunity for a bartending professional to be nominated as a Wine and Spirits Professional. When Dale DeGroff won that award in 2009, there was a sense of change coming on the horizon. The craft cocktail industry has been making such incredible advances over the last number of years, so while it was wonderful to see the new category, it seemed like more of a natural progression than a surprise.

You got your start at the Waterfront Ale House in 1995, and then went on to work with the legendary Dale DeGroff at Blackbird a few years later. Did you have any inkling back then that craft cocktails would reach this level of national recognition?
I was hopeful that craft cocktails would one day be recognized and appreciated on a culinary level. It was something I had always dreamed of, but no, [I] never [thought that they would reach these heights] in such a short period of time.

When Pegu Club opened in 2005, many patrons asked that their gin cocktail be made with vodka. Today, every new restaurant has a cocktail program with handcrafted bitters and fresh ingredients. What changed?
[In the past we didn’t] hold bars to the same high expectations that we held for great new restaurants with talented chefs. It was my goal to change that perception. I truly believed that the only way to restore elegant cocktail culture was to take a contrary stand. When we opened, Pegu had five vodkas and 27 gins—pretty much the antithesis of every other bar throughout the country. I made it my mission to revive the gin category. Gin has a depth and complexity that other spirits can’t match, but American bartenders had all but forgotten how to utilize it. I [also] had the designer create shelves for the back bar that would showcase many of my vintage cocktail books, barware and antique spirits from my personal collection. I wanted people to be inspired enough by what they drank and by the historical pieces, that they would want to experience [it again].

I also had to amass a strong front-line of bartenders, who created a friendly, warm and welcoming environment. We all knew that every drink on the menu was delicious, but for a newbie, it was scary to read—all you saw was gin, rye and amari. Many guests balked at the idea of gin, but we had a drink for every one of them and we knew that we could change their minds with just one sip. Something I laughed about was discovering one of [the bartenders’] techniques for “selling” a [gin] drink. If it was a vodka drinker, they would tell them about this fantastic drink which contained a vodka infused with juniper and citrus. After those first couple of sips, they were sold, and then the bartenders would reveal that it was, in fact, gin. [The guests would say:] “But I hate gin…I thought I hated gin?” All of a sudden, the guests had a comfort level and were open to trying many different things.

Many of today’s star bartenders got their start at the Pegu Club. That includes two of the other Outstanding Bar Program nominees, Jim Meehan of PDT and Toby Maloney of the Violet Hour. Does that hold any significance for you?
While they are responsible for their own successes, seeing both of their nominations is extremely gratifying. I’m proud of all the other Pegu alumni who’ve gone forth and made a difference. Their accomplishments speak for themselves, and I fully expect that many of them will be nominated one day, as well.

Given Pegu Club’s role in reviving classic cocktail culture, what do you make of a place like Aviary—Grant Achatz and Craig Schoettler’s cutting-edge cocktail bar in Chicago?
If executed properly, I’m a big fan of cutting-edge ideas like those of Grant and Craig, who are doing some very cool work. I’ve been to Alinea and had an incredibly stimulating and enriching experience there, and am looking forward to visiting Aviary one day.

Recently, you and Robert Hess, who runs the cocktail websitechanticleersociety.org, got married—mazel tov!—and you now live in Seattle. Any plans for a project out there?
I wanted to enjoy some personal time with Robert and get a feel for Seattle [before starting any new projects here]. Two years later, the time feels right. Robert and I are laying the groundwork for a small cocktail school in Seattle, as well as forming a bar concept.

If you win, how will you celebrate?
Why I’ll be at Pegu with Robert [Hess], of course!

 

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