Few awards mean more to a chef than a James Beard Foundation Award. But it can be particularly meaningful for those chefs who have grown with a restaurant for more than 10 years — an accolade saved for the Outstanding Restaurant Award, presented by Acqua Panna Natural Spring Water.
This year’s nominees run the spectrum of location and cuisine: August in New Orleans; Blue Hill in New York City; Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, Ala.; The Slanted Door in San Francisco; and Spiaggia in Chicago.
We teamed up with Acqua Panna to go to each restaurant, share a meal, and discuss with each chef how their restaurants have maintained their quality and continually evolved over the years. I certainly wouldn't want to have to vote for a winner — not only was every meal unique, exciting, and inbued with the products of each respective city, but the passion of every chef was so evident in all five interviews. All of the chefs expressed sincere excitement for just being nominated (a cliché, but one that appears true for this category), and the result was five completely different stories about each restaurant's trajectory.
We started in New York City at Blue Hill. The restaurant has been open since 2000, and executive chef Dan Barber and his partners David and Laureen Barber have created a restaurant that is a leader in celebrating local ingredients through their partnership with the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. But its the flavors that keep diners coming back. The highlight from my meal was an of-the-moment green garlic soup that encapsulated the ethos of the restaurant. Click below to watch our full interview with Dan Barber.
We next traveled to Chicago to check out Spiaggia. The Magnificent Mile Italian fine dining staple has only grown better with age due to chef/owner Tony Mantuano's mentorship of his executive chef Sarah Grueneberg. I was particiularly entranced with the spaghetti marinara with uni and shrimp — a dish with so much elegance yet it packed a sincere wallop of flavor. Click below to watch our full interview with Tony Mantuano and Sarah Grueneberg.
After Chicago it was time to head south to the Big Easy. Chef John Besh has become a well-known natioanl figure, with his television shows and books, but his flagship Restaurant August is still a beacon of New Orleans cuisine with French elegance. I could have eaten an entire dinner just of Besh's spring-inspired fried oysters with green garlic, red pepper aioli, and blue cheese. Click below to watch the full interview with Besh.
Our second Southern stop had us in Birmingham, Ala., to visit Frank Stitt's iconic Highlands Bar and Grill. Since 1982 Stitt has been elevating the Birmingham dining scene with his French technique and love for all things local. I also fell in love with one of his classic dishes, the baked grits made with Parmesan, ham, and sherry vinegar. Click below to watch the full interview with Stitt.
Our final meal was in San Francisco at Charles Phan's The Slanted Door. Phan's 18-year-old restaurant elevates and modernizes Vietnamese cuisine while also simultanously celebrating the products of California and the Bay Area. The love for ingredients with classic flavors of Vietnam showed through most brightly for me in the shaking beef with cubed filet mignon, watercress, red onion, and lime sauce. Click below to watch the full interview with Phan.
It's an impossible choice to choose between five restaurants that are all so accomplished and so different. Luckily, the choice isn't up to us — but be sure to come to The Daily Meal for all coverage of the James Beard Foundation Awards on May 6!