Before They Were Stars: The Humble Beginnings of James Beard Award Winners

Contributor
Everyone has to start somewhere, and 25 years ago, these chefs had no idea that they would become James Beard Award winners
Galdones Photography

Blaine Wetzel of Willows Inn on Lummi Island won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Northwest this year.

The James Beard Awards are a distinction that reigns supreme in the American culinary world. It has become the Oscars of the food industry; a Who’s Who of the restaurant elite; an indication of who really has a finger on the pulse of dining trends.

However, even culinary giants had to start somewhere. With the James Beard Awards celebrating its 25th anniversary, we took a look back at the humble roots of some of this year’s award winners and at what point they started their path to that esteemed medal.

Gerard Craft – Best Chef: Midwest
Where were you 25 years ago?
25 years ago, I was 11 and I don’t know what I was doing when I was 11. Riding some bikes. I was eating Pacman pasta, which was pretty much Spaghetti-Os, but in the shape of Pacman.

Jim Lahey – Outstanding Baker
Where were you 25 years ago?
Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Working on paying the rent, surviving, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.

When did your path to becoming a James Beard Award Winner begin?
I would say when they came up with a category for which I was able to be nominated. [This is the first year the Outstanding Baker category was awarded]. I guess, really, when I found out I was a finalist. Otherwise I was just nominated, which I was shocked I was nominated as a semifinalist, and even more shocked when I was a finalist.

Jessica Largely – Rising Star Chef of the Year
Where were you 25 years ago?
25 years ago, I was 4 years old, probably teasing one of my sisters.

When did your path to becoming a James Beard Award Winner begin?
About a year after that when I was like 5, I started cooking, and then that’s just what I always wanted to do my whole life.

Shelley Lindgren, A16 – Outstanding Wine Program
Where were you 25 years ago?
Good question – I was actually working in the restaurant business, and I was a server, and I was still learning. Back then, I worked for fine dining, but we didn’t have a sommelier on the floor, so I felt like knowing the wines was part of our responsibility, as well as service. So my mentors at that time were chefs, but I was also, without knowing it, learning about my foundation of wine as I was spending time with people. I remember back then in the 80s, I’m an 80s girl at heart anyway, but I had big, fluffy hair, and I remember my first wonderful letter. They were like, ‘[It was] the server with the fluffy hair!’

When did your path to becoming a James Beard Award Winner begin?
Having that foundation of a wine and service background, and then through that, realizing that the stories of wines of Italy are so varied and passionate and not told, and I wanted to be a person to help tell that story. I fell in love with it; I went there and visited and they deserve it. I’m an ambassador for them – they do the work, I just get to share the story.

Barry Maiden – Best Chef: Northeast
Where were you 25 years ago?
I was probably 14, not quite worried about the real world yet. I didn’t start cooking until I was 16, so I was on the cusp.

When did your path to becoming a James Beard Award Winner begin?
I would say when I moved to Boston back in 1999 or 2000 after I graduated culinary school. I started working for some really high-caliber chefs, and I knew that I was on the right path to enjoy some success if I worked hard enough for it.

Jason Stanhope – Best Chef: Southeast
Where were you 25 years ago?
25 years ago, I was 7 years old in Topeka, Kansas, and I was probably playing baseball or swimming in the pool or picking on my little brother who’s here today. People are always like, ‘Oh my God, your parents must be the greatest cooks’ and actually we were so busy, they just made sure that we ate together, but what we ate wasn’t as important as just eating it together, so the ritual of eating and the communal aspect of it was always just driven into my head.

When did your path to becoming a James Beard Award Winner begin?
Well, the start was definitely in Kansa City with Debbie Gold at 40 Sardines, that’s where I knew I wanted to do what I’m doing now. I had a meal while I was [working] at 40 Sardines, probably 9 years ago at Daniel, and the service and the food, everything was so intoxicating, that was my lightbulb moment.

Blaine Wetzel – Best Chef: Northwest
Where were you 25 years ago?
[His father answers] Well, that would be the picture on my refrigerator where you have spaghetti sauce all over your face.

When did your path to becoming a James Beard Award Winner begin?
I got a job right out of high school at the Phoenetian Hotel. That was a really nice place to work and really inspired me to keep on in my career.

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