The location is new, but the scenario is not. Monday evening in Chicago, Gerard Craft of Niche will learn whether he has won "Best Chef: Midwest" at the annual James Beard Awards, which have relocated to the Windy City from their traditional New York City home for at least the next three years.
This is the fourth consecutive year -- and the sixth time in the past seven years -- that Craft has been a nominee for "Best Chef: Midwest." No St. Louis chef has won the award, the boundaries of which also include Minneapolis-St. Paul, Milwaukee, Madison and Kansas City. Craft and Kevin Nashan of Sidney Street Cafe, a nominee last year, are the only area chefs who have made the finalist cut.
Is 2015 Craft's year? It isn't unusual for a chef to rack up multiple nominations before finally winning. When Colby Garrelts of Kansas City's Bluestem won "Best Chef: Midwest" in 2013, it was his seventh time as a finalist.
For those of you following Craft's chances, here is a brief look at his four competitors for honor.
(Full disclosure: I currently sit on the James Beard Foundation's Restaurants & Chefs Awards subcommittee. As this position relates to Monday's event, I am merely one of several hundred judges eligible to vote for the awards. No one except for the foundation's accounting firm knows who the winners are before they are announced.)
Paul Berglund, the Bachelor Farmer, Minneapolis: Berglund, a St. Louis native, is a nominee for the second consecutive year. Minneapolis Star-Tribune restaurant critic Rick Nelson filed an effusive 4-star review upon the Bachelor Farmer's opening in 2011:
"Berglund's tightly focused, seasonally diligent menu has already evolved since his bosses...quietly launched their enterprise late this past summer. ...(I)t's a testament to his work to date that I can say, without hesitation, that I can't wait to see what the future holds for this restaurant."
Justin Carlisle, Ardent, Milwaukee: Carlisle is a nominee in his first year of eligibility. His restaurant, Ardent, was a semifinalist in 2013 for Best New Restaurant nationwide. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel critic Carol Deptolla awarded it 4 stars in a January 2014 review:
"This is the restaurant of a chef unfettered, cooking the food that means something to him, that he finds delicious and compelling." At Ardent, Deptolla writes, "the character of a place and its traditions are revealed in a modern way, and there's flat-out joy to be found in food."
Michelle Gayer, the Salty Tart, Minneapolis: Gayer is a nominee for the third consecutive year. Unlike the other four nominees, she is a baker. That she remained a nominee this year even after the James Beard Foundation added a category specifically for bakers is a testament to her support among judges.
"These triumphs of simplicity are the summit of Gayer's rustic aesthetic..." the Star-Triubne's Nelson wrote of Gayer's macaroons in a 4-star review from 2008. "...Gayer understands and appreciates the beauty of understatement. No running, no hiding, just a full-on celebration of the power and glory of coconut."
Lenny Russo, Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market, St. Paul: This is the fifth nomination in six years for Russo. (He missed the finalist cut in 2013.) As with Craft, this consistent support over several years suggests (though by no means guarantees) that Russo is a favorite to win the award at some point.
"Russo's cooking style has always been to put the ingredients front and center and manipulate them as little as possible," the Star-Tribune's Nelson wrote in a 4-star review from 2010. "...(A)t its best, the straightforward preparations bounce flattering flavors off each prized ingredient."
This year's awards are scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. central. I'd be surprised if we don't know the winner of "Best Chef: Midwest" before 8 p.m. I'll be at the ceremony. Follow me @ianfroeb on Twitter for live updates.