New Orleans had contenders in two categories Monday night at the James Beard Foundation’s annual awards gala in New York, but the city still managed to come away with three awards.
In a tie, the regional award for “Best Chef: South” went both to Sue Zemanick, chef of the Uptown restaurants Gautreau’s and Ivy, and to Ryan Prewitt, chef at the year-old Warehouse District restaurant Pêche Seafood Grill.
A little later in the evening Pêche snagged the national award for Best New Restaurant, representing quite a sweep for Prewitt and his partners and co-chefs in the restaurant, Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski.
“I think we built a great, new, fun addition in New Orleans,” Link said in accepting the award.
The James Beard Awards, which were presented during a ceremony at Lincoln Center, are widely considered the most prestigious honors in American cooking.
In winning the Best Chef: South award, Prewitt and Zemanick joined a pantheon of acclaimed New Orleans chefs including Emeril Lagasse, Frank Brigtsen, Susan Spicer and others who have won the honor through the years.
In another distinction, Pêche can now claim three James Beard regional award winners at its helm. Link and Stryjewski took home the Best Chef: South honor in 2007 and 2011, respectively.
In addition to Prewitt and Zemanick, New Orleans chefs Justin Devillier of La Petite Grocery and Alon Shaya of Domenica and the new Pizza Domenica were also nominated for Best Chef: South. The fifth nominee for the honor was Vishwesh Bhatt, from Snackbar in Oxford, Miss., which is owned by chef John Currence, a New Orleans native who operates four restaurants in that city.
Zemanick has been nominated multiple times in the past for James Beard awards, though this was her first win. A native of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., she has worked in New Orleans kitchens since 2002, beginning at Commander’s Palace.
She later joined the staff at Gautreau’s and worked her way up to executive chef in 2005, just weeks before Hurricane Katrina hit.
Prewitt is another transplant to New Orleans. He grew up in Memphis and got his start in the restaurant industry in San Francisco before moving to New Orleans to work under Link at Herbsaint in 2005, again just before Katrina hit.
As sous chef he helped reopen that restaurant, and he became its chef de cuisine in 2009. Link and Stryjewski tapped Prewitt as a partner to start Pêche Seafood Grill last year, and it has been turning heads since then for its dedication to wood-fire cooking and whole fish.
The James Beard Foundation also honored two other — quite different — names in New Orleans food this year.
Hansen’s Sno Bliz, the vintage Uptown sno-ball stand, was earlier this year named one of America’s Classics, which the foundation describes as an honor for “regional establishments, often family-owned, that are treasured for their quality food, local character and lasting appeal.” Started by the late Mary and Ernest Hansen during the Depression, the shop continues to be operated by their granddaughter, Ashley Hansen.
The Treme restaurant Willie Mae’s Scotch House was awarded the same honor in 2005, helping to propel it from a neighborhood eatery visited mainly by locals to a magnet for food-focused visitors and national media.
Also this year, New Orleans chef John Besh was named one of six new inductees to the foundation’s Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America, a roster the group maintains of “renowned culinary professionals who have made a significant and unique contribution to the American food and beverage industry.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.