Even though he’s been a James Beard Award semi-finalist for three years in a row, Chef Aaron Vandemark of Hillsborough’s Panciuto was caught off guard last month when he learned that his name was on the list yet again. He was checking his email and received a congratulatory note, at first not realizing what it was for. But that’s not too different from last year, Vandemark says. In 2012, he was alone in his kitchen cutting up lamb parts when he received a phone call from a writer in Raleigh who gave him the news. “I’m always surprised by how informal it is,” he admits, referring to the fact that The James Beard Foundation does not notify its semi-finalists directly.
Vandemark also feels lucky. He is one of 20 chefs in the region to be a semi-finalist for James Beard's Best Chef: Southeast Award. (Six of the 20 are from North Carolina.) “I believe in what I’m doing," Vandemark says. "But there are so many other great people not on the list, and it would be easy for one of them to supplant my name there. I feel lucky to be included.”
Vandemark opened Panciuto in 2006, when he was in his late twenties. Before his solo venture, he honed his craft in a string of restaurants in the Triangle and in Atlanta. Like most chefs, he started out with the most basic kitchen jobs, “flipping omelets on Sunday mornings,” and worked his way up. Among the restaurant kitchens he has worked in include Il Palio and the late Magnolia Grill, where he worked for under a year. But unlike any of the restaurants he has worked in, Panciuto has a rare concept. It’s Italian food made with Southern ingredients, or “a Southern restaurant serving Italian dinners,” as Vandemark puts it. He pulls his ingredients from as nearby as possible, sourcing most menu items directly from North Carolina growers and suppliers.
Vandemark's Panciuto has made the James Beard semi-finalist list for the past three years. The Awards are considered the highest honor in the food industry. Yet despite all the accolades, Vandemark does not shy away from simple food. He shares the following corndog recipe, with these words:
"Cooking at the restaurant is most often exceedingly complex or relatively simple, and perhaps that's some of the secret of what makes it delicious. As for this recipe, it's what I get excited about on Sunday. Hot dog buns are so last year. Buy your favorite hot dog and put it in this batter for a killer corndog lunch. Enjoy."
4 oz white sweet potatoes (regular potatoes can also be used)
½ cups buttermilk
¼ cup milk
¼ cup cake flour
¾ cup all-purpose flour
½ cup cornmeal
1.5 teaspoons baking powder
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon onion powder
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
Combine group 1, combine group 2. Add 1 to 2, whisk to combine. Put hot dogs on a stick, dredge them in flour and dust off the excess. Roll them in this batter and fry a few at a time at 325 degrees, 350 degrees at most, for about 3 minutes, until golden brown. Remove to blot on paper towels before devouring.
Stay tuned! This week, we’re taking a closer look at some of the local restaurants and chefs nominated as semi-finalists for the James Beard Awards. North Carolina claimed 13 semi-finalists for the annual Restaurant and Chef Awards, nine of which are in or near the Triangle. The James Beard Foundation will announce its finalists for the Restaurant and Chef Awards on March 18 and the winners on May 3.