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James Beard Semifinalists Are Out, and I Only Semi-care

Is this first round of nominations as big a deal as we’re made to think?

Spiaggia’s Tony and Cathy Mantuano arrive at the 2015 James Beard Awards, held for the first time in Chicago   Photo: Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune

The James Beard Foundation on Wednesday had the culinary world aflutter with its list of semifinalists.

Or did it?

I wondered about the current impact of James Beard folderol, including 27 semifinalists from Chicago, so the day after the semifinalists were announced, I put that question to several of the nominees. I received a variety of responses.

Grant Achatz

Alinea, Next

“It’s nice to be acknowledged by your peers and industry, but it doesn’t make your restaurants really busy. It’s a nice thing to share with your team and feel proud of.” 

Phillip Foss

EL Ideas

“It’s great acknowledgement. This is my third year as semifinalist. [There’s] no uptick from being a semifinalist. I don’t know if being a finalist would make a difference. It might.” 

Tony Mantuano

Bar Toma, Café Spiaggia, River Roast, Spiaggia

“It’s a big deal, the Beard thing. I think that it lifts your profile, especially with your peers. It’s one of those validations that absolutely helps with business, in my opinion.”

Iliana Regan

Elizabeth Restaurant, Bunny

“Obviously it’s an honor to be recognized for anything we do because we work 16-18 hours a day between these restaurants and constantly obsess, stress, and create. Most of the time it’s the most fun and rewarding thing I can do. And sometimes it’s very scary because of economic uncertainties. [To quote musician Alison Krauss,] ‘Next best thing to winning is losing.’”

Carrie Nahabedian

Naha, Brindille

“I’ve been on the list for outstanding chef, this could be my fourth time. Does it change anything? Not that I have ever noticed. But customers who come in who are in the know certainly acknowledge it. Awards come out in the wintertime. Everyone is kind of tired from Valentine’s Day, looking at their taxes, winter in Chicago. [Wednesday], especially, I had a lot of people in the restaurants congratulate me. That is the power of the media. Winning definitely changes business. But you do need to look at it and not think about it too much. Some years you are on it and some years, not. No rhyme or reason to it.”

Jason Paskewitz

The Blanchard

“I actually think [the semifinalist round] lends to the anxiety and the excitement of it. God, I wish I just knew. Regardless of the finalists, just getting the semifinal, things changed for me 100 percent—the immediate reaction amongst my peers. I know about it as far as chefs. When you become an owner, you want the respect of your peers. That’s what you work for. I don’t know how it’s going to affect my business. It’s my first nomination and it’s only Day 2.”

Alpana Singh

The Boarding House, Seven Lions, Terra & Vine (upcoming)

“It’s really a big deal. When I got the call that I was nominated, I was 24 years old. It was for wine service award at Everest. I almost fell out of bed. It’s a good thing I was in bed. I was shaking with excitement. That was 16 years ago. I haven’t been nominated since. When Tanya [Baker] was nominated last year [for rising star chef at Boarding House], I had that same feeling. And when she popped up again [Wednesday] morning, I still had that feeling. It never gets old. It’s the highest achievement you can receive in our industry, aside from staying open.”

Bruce Sherman

North Pond

“It’s exciting that by drawing the curtain earlier on what used to be a more secretive ‘process,’ the Beard folks have effectively created a widespread industry buzz in February for an election not scheduled to take place until May!”


As for me, Penny Pollack: Of course a Beard nomination is an honor, a big deal, and peer validation. But a semifinalist round? It makes me think JBF is looking for more attention than it’s already getting, and it’s giving me award fatigue. Congrats and good luck to all in contention, but from where I sit, I have yet to hear of a diner who chose a restaurant based on its James Beard semifinalist nomination status.


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