The two James Beard Awards coming back to New Orleans this year belong to a newcomer who quickly carved her own niche in the local restaurant community and to a bar that helped reset the city’s famous cocktail scene, founded by a bartender now making bigger moves in the field.
The cocktail lounge Cure won the national award for Outstanding Bar Program, and chef Nina Compton, of Compère Lapin and the recently opened Bywater American Bistro, won the regional award for Best Chef: South.
The James Beard Foundation presented its high-profile awards Monday night at a gala in Chicago. The nominees for the awards were whittled down from a list of some 20,000 chefs, restaurants and bars submitted by the public during an open call last fall.
New Orleans has been well-represented in these awards in recent years, and this time eight New Orleans finalists were in the running, along with a few other New Orleans names honored by the group outside of its awards categories.
Cure won its award after three consecutive years as a finalist for Outstanding Bar Program.
Founded in 2009 by bartenders Neal Bodenheimer and Kirk Estopinal and business partner Matthew Kohnke, Cure was an early addition to the now-bustling restaurant row on Freret Street.
At the time, it turned heads as an upscale addition to an old commercial stretch only beginning to see redevelopment. Cure also raised some eyebrows with a craft cocktail approach that emphasized fresh ingredients and precise compositions, which was then far from mainstream in New Orleans. Soon, though, Cure became the city's pacesetter for modern cocktails.
"When Cure started nine years ago, our two goals were to make a great neighborhood cocktail bar and not go out of business,” Bodenheimer said while accepting the award Monday night. “This award did not even exist then, so to say this exceeds our wildest expectations is an understatement.”
The team behind Cure later developed other spots, including the French Quarter restaurant and cocktail destination Cane & Table.
Earlier this year, Bodenheimer and local event producer Gary Solomon Jr. and the Solomon family also took over leadership of Tales of the Cocktail, the annual spirits industry event in New Orleans. Their new team has since revamped the organization as a nonprofit and has begun a program of grants to cultivate progressive ideas for the hospitality industry and beyond.
This is the second consecutive year that a New Orleans establishment took home the Outstanding Bar Program award. In 2017, it went to the French 75 bar at Arnaud's Restaurant.
Nina Compton won the Best Chef: South award three years after arriving in New Orleans. A native of the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, Compton moved here in 2015 after her star turn on the series "Top Chef." Compère Lapin, which she developed with her husband, Larry Miller, was her first restaurant.
Compton blends her Caribbean roots with Italian and French styles for an original, refined yet readily approachable cuisine. It was an immediate hit and has proved to be a consistent draw among the new guard of New Orleans fine dining.
It also has developed a prominent standing in the city's hospitality business. A stint at Compère Lapin has become the kind of gig that young chefs highlight on their résumés when they’re ready to make their own moves.
In accepting the award, Compton thanked the team behind her restaurants and shared her gratitude for the recognition. "I never dreamed coming from a very, very small island of St. Lucia that I would be here today," she said.
Other local nominees this year were Slade Rushing of Brennan's restaurant and Michael Stoltzfus and Kristen Essig, the co-chefs of Coquette. New Orleans chef Rebecca Wilcomb of Herbsaint won the Best Chef: South award in 2017.
New Orleans also had a pair of new inductees this year in the James Beard Foundation's list of Who's Who of Food & Beverage in America. The honor was shared by Lally Brennan and Ti Adelaide Martin, the cousins who together run Commander's Palace. The restaurant's founders, Ella Brennan and the late Dick Brennan, were named to the same list earlier.
Earlier this year, the James Beard Foundation announced another local establishment — Dong Phuong, the Vietnamese restaurant and bakery in New Orleans East — would be a 2018 recipient of its America’s Classics Awards.
Separate from its chef and restaurant awards, the America’s Classic Awards recognize establishments of “timeless appeal” that serve food “that reflects the character of their communities,” according to the foundation. Hansen’s Sno-Bliz, Mosca’s and Willie Mae’s Scotch House are other New Orleans businesses to win the America’s Classics Award in past years.
Other New Orleans names up for big awards Monday night were Donald Link of the Link Restaurant Group for Outstanding Chef (which went to Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune in New York); JoAnn Clevenger of Upperline for Outstanding Restaurateur (it went to Caroline Styne of Lucques Group in Los Angeles); Kelly Fields of the cafe/bakery Willa Jean for Outstanding Pastry Chef (it went to Dolester Miles of Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham, Alabama); and Bacchanal, the Bywater wine shop/eatery/bar for Outstanding Wine Program (it went to Fig in Charleston, South Carolina).
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