Many familiar names were on the slate of nominees for the James Beard Foundation awards Monday night, and the three who took home medals represented a broad swath of the New Orleans culinary tale between them.
The organization honored living legend Leah Chase, matriarch of the Dooky Chase’s Restaurant family; Justin Devillier, a young chef working on the edge of contemporary Creole cuisine; and the restaurant Shaya, from chef Alon Shaya, part of the growing diversification of flavors around the city’s dining scene.
The James Beard awards, often touted as the most prestigious honors in American cuisine, were dished out during a gala and ceremony in Chicago.
Shaya, the restaurant from chef Shaya and the Besh Restaurant Group, has been a magnet for honors since opening last year and it picked up a huge one Monday with the national James Beard award for Best New Restaurant.
Accepting the award, chef Shaya acknowledged that modern Israeli cuisine might not sound like an intuitive fit for New Orleans, but he credited the people who make the restaurant work behind the scenes with its success.
“New Orleans is the best food city in the world right now, we have so many wonderful things going on,” said Shaya. “The fact that we can do what we love and cook Israeli food in New Orleans and have the city embrace it and the country embrace it, that really just means so much to us.”
This is the second time in three years that a New Orleans restaurant has won the Best New Restaurant award. Peche Seafood Grill from Donald Link’s group won in 2014.
Devillier won Monday’s regional award for Best Chef: South. Devillier is a California transplant who worked his way up in the New Orleans fine dining scene. In 2010, he and his wife Mia Freiberger-Devillier became owners of La Petite Grocery and began remaking the Uptown contemporary Creole restaurant in their own style. Last year, they opened their more casual venture, Balise, in the CBD.
In winning the Best Chef: South award, Devillier joins a pantheon of acclaimed New Orleans chefs including Emeril Lagasse, Frank Brigtsen and Susan Spicer who have shared the honor through the years. Last year, the award went to Alon Shaya.
While accepting the award Devillier offered his appreciation to the other chefs in the house.
“I call you all my peers, my inspiration, my mentors, to be standing up here is just humbling,” he said.
Devillier also gave a shout out to his crew back in New Orleans.
“All the chefs, all the cooks, all the dishwashers,” he said. “I love all you guys, thank you.”
“A long way from the strawberry patch”
On the same evening, Leah Chase, a chef renowned for her role in New Orleans culture far beyond the culinary realm, was honored with the group’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
“Look at me now Madisonville,” Chase said from the stage, referencing her childhood home on the family farm. “A long way from the strawberry patch.”
Beginning in the 1940s, Chase and her husband Edgar “Dooky” Chase II began transforming their family’s modest neighborhood eatery Dooky Chase’s into what has become one of the most storied and admired restaurants in New Orleans. It became a hub for the city’s African American community, and by the 1950s the restaurant became a meeting place for civil rights activists, both black and white.
Chase later earned a reputation as a patron of the arts, encouraging and supporting emerging talent, and today the walls of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant display an acclaimed collection of work by African American artists.
“I don’t know how I got here, but this gives me courage to keep going,” she said Monday night in Chicago. “I’m 93 years old…and this gives me courage to keep going for 10, 12 more years.”
Chase is the second New Orleans restaurateur to receive the James Beard Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement award. Ella Brennan, of the Commander’s Palace family of restaurants, received the honor in 2009.
A full slate
Other New Orleanians hoping for big awards Monday night included Donald Link, who has won multiple Beard awards in the past. This year he was a finalist for Outstanding Chef, the James Beard group’s highest honor (it went to Suzanne Goin, of Lucques in Los Angeles).
The two other New Orleans chefs in the final running for the regional Best Chef: South award this year were Slade Rushing, chef of Brennan’s Restaurant on Royal Street, and Isaac Toups of Toups’ Meatery, the contemporary Cajun restaurant in Mid-City.
Arnaud’s French 75, the bar at the historic French Creole restaurant, and Cure, the modern cocktail lounge on Freret Street. Both were finalists for Outstanding Bar Program (the award went to Maison Premiere in Brooklyn). Commander’s Palace was a finalist for Outstanding Wine Program (the award went to Bern’s Steakhouse in Tampa).
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.