James Beard Award

James Beard Award is similar to the Academy Awards, but for the best chefs and bakers in America.

  From bakeries and dives to fine dining and drive-ins, North Carolina restaurants consistently top foodies' "best-of" lists.  So it was no surprise to many in the Tar Heel culinary scene when the state's chefs and bakers were on the James Beard Foundation's semifinalist list. 

The Foundation announced the the semifinalists Wednesday at a news conference in Chicago. Nine North Carolinians made the list in two categories - Best Chef: Southeast and Outstanding Baker.

Chef Ashley Christensen won the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Southeast. The news was announced Monday.

To Christensen, a restaurant is not just a place where you sit down to eat.  It’s an entire concept.  She carefully plots an immersive experience for her diners.

Vivian Howard, Chef and the Farmer
Vivian Howard

Working in famous New York City restaurants, Vivian Howard swore she’d never move back to her home state of North Carolina.  Then, in 2005, when she decided to open her restaurant, her family offered financial help with a catch: She had to open the restaurant near her home town.

"I was against it," she remembers.

But Howard and her husband Ben Knight wound up moving to the 20,000-population city of Kinston, N.C., and opened an upscale restaurant.

James Beard Foundation
James Beard Foundation

The James Beard Foundation announced the recipients of the 2013 Restaurant and Chef Awards on Monday night. Raleigh’s Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner was in the running for Best Chef in the Southeast, but the final award for that category went to Joseph Lenn of The Barn at Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee. Christensen was North Carolina’s only James Beard Award Nominee (finalist) this year, out of 13 semi-finalists in the state. Hear her interview with WUNC's State of Things.

Chef Ashley Christensen is a finalist for the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Southeast.

To Ashley Christensen, a restaurant is not just a place where you sit down to eat.  It’s an entire concept.  She carefully plots an immersive experience for her diners. 

There are days for cake, and days for ice cream and cookies. But every now and then, you crave a different kind of finish to a satisfying meal. Enter Atlantic Beach Pie, a salty and citrusy staple of the North Carolina coast.

James Beard Foundation
James Beard Foundation

More than a dozen North Carolina restaurants and chefs earned a spot on the James Beard Award semifinalist list this year, but only one is advancing to the nominee (finalist) category: Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner in Raleigh. Christensen was nominated for Best Chef: Southeast, a position she shares with four other chefs in the region. Here is her reaction on twitter this morning:

fresh peas
courtesy of Andrea Reusing

Like a few others in the Triangle, Andrea Reusing found out she was a James Beard semi-finalist on Twitter.  But of the 13 semi-finalists in North Carolina this year, Andrea Reusing of Lantern is the only one to have ever won the award before.

Phoebe Lawless
Lissa Gotwals

People who bake pies for a living usually do so because they love it. Not to win awards. So when Phoebe Lawless of Scratch bakery learned recently that the James Beard Foundation named her a semi-finalist for Outstanding Pastry Chef – an honor she shares with only 19 others in the country – she was thoroughly shocked.   “I certainly did not expect to find myself on the list,” she said.  Lawless learned of the honor while at home on her couch, when someone mentioned it on Twitter.  

Fullsteam's First Frost persimmon ale

Like last year, Sean Lilly Wilson of the Durham brewery Fullsteam found out that he was on the list of 2013 James Beard Award semi-finalists via Twitter.  And he thought it was a mistake.  His reaction?  “Profound disbelief,” he says.  Wilson’s Fullsteam made the semi-finalist list for the Outstanding Wine, Spirits, or Beer Professional Award, joining names like Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, Buffalo Trace Distillery, and The Brooklyn Brewery.

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.

A dish at Lantern, a previous James Beard Award winner

The James Beard Foundation has released its annual list of semifinalists for the Restaurant and Chef Awards. On the list are 13 North Carolina eateries and chefs, 9 of which are in or near the Triangle. The James Beard Awards are considered the highest awards in the food industry. The semifinalists in North Carolina are:

Magnolia Grill Closing

May 3, 2012
Karen and Ben Barker

One of the most well-respected restaurants in the Triangle is closing its doors. Magnolia Grill in Durham has been a culinary powerhouse for 25 years.

Leoneda Inge:  Most people got the word yesterday that the award-winning Magnolia Grill is closing its kitchen for good.  Nick Powell says his family has never had a bad dish at Magnolia Grill.

Nick Powell:  We’re pretty sad to see it go.  Emilee gasped when she read the news.

Emilee Powell:  It’s one of our favorite restaurants.

Crook's Shrimp & Grits
Leoneda Inge

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the “food scene” in the Triangle went from good to great! But we’re there now and the rest of the country is taking note. Some of the most prestigious awards for restaurants and chefs come from the James Beard Foundation in New York. The tops in the food world will soon celebrate their James Beard Awards in “Oscars-like” style.  And that will include the crew at Crook’s Corner restaurant in Chapel Hill.