Bay Area Chefs Up For Beard Awards: A Remarkably Collegial Bunch

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Jennifer Sauer
Chef Jeremy Fox

The James Beard Awards (popularly known as the Oscars of the food world) will be awarded Monday, May 4. This year all five chefs nominated for the category of Best Chef: Pacific - an area that covers California and Hawaii -- come from the Bay Area: Jeremy Fox of Ubuntu in Napa, Douglas Keane of Cyrus in Healdsburg, Loretta Keller of Coco500 in San Francisco, David Kinch of Manresa in Los Gatos, and Daniel Patterson of Coi in San Francisco.

Conversations with all five of them this week revealed them to be a remarkably collegial and generous bunch. When these chefs say that it's an honor to be nominated alongside each other, and they'd be happy if any of them won, you believe them. They're also looking forward to eating in NYC - one hot place, Corton, nominated this year for Best New Restaurant, is hosting three of them.

David Kinch said, regarding his chances, "I'm not holding my breath. Everyone who's nominated this year I can call my friend - it's a really cool group to be included in. Jeremy Fox is one of my old guys - I'm very proud, like a father to him." He's leaving for New York "after service on Saturday, taking the red-eye. We get off the plane and go straight to brunch at Prune - I've never been there. I'll be going with Jeremy. And we're having dinner at Corton - partnered with Drew Nieporent, Paul Liebrandt is just doing solid, delicious food. I'm also looking forward to a couple of off-the radar Japanese places that I'm going to try. One on-the-radar one that I'm also going to is Yakitori Totto."

Kinch is the name that comes up most often when the chefs prognosticate the winner. Douglas Keane is nominated for the third year in a row. He lost to Traci des Jardins of Jardiniere in 2007 and Craig Stoll of Delfina in 2008 - San Francisco is on a roll. He laughs "Always a bridesmaid!," and says "I think David Kinch may be the best chef in the country." He adds "I know Loretta, I know David very well, Daniel I've done events with, and Jeremy - it's a great honor to be included. I try not to read too much into the awards. All the accolades are great - they're fun, icing on the cake, and help bring in business - but we do no more than 85 covers every night, and we're only as good as the last meal." He'll be away from Napa only 48 hours, and looks forward to "trying some dim sum in Chinatown."

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David Kinch

Jeremy Fox considers Kinch his mentor - "I think it would be great if he won" -- he joined him at Manresa in 2003. Even though he later did stages in London with Gordon Ramsay and Fergus Henderson, the famed meatcentric nose-to-tail chef of St. John's, Ubuntu is a vegetarian restaurant, and if Fox wins, he'll be the first chef of a vegetarian restaurant to receive a Beard award. "I'm not nervous - it's all a bit too surreal to be nervous about. The chefs I'm nominated against I've looked up to for years. Honestly, if I don't win, I won't be upset." In addition to joining Kinch at Corton and Prune, he's going to try to squeeze in
visits to Momofuku Ssam Bar, Café Boulud, and the Modern, with his wife Deanie, Ubuntu's pastry chef. "I'm not a vegetarian. Pig used to be a major obsession of mine at Manresa."

Daniel Patterson, who was nominated in 2001 as Best New Restaurant when he was the chef and co-owner of SF's now-closed Elisabeth Daniel (and lost to Alain Ducasse's also-closed Ducasse in NY), says "It's great to be nominated. We'll go for the party, but if I focus on that sort of thing it becomes a distraction. I'm not really keen on cooking as competition. I really try to stay focused on the food we do every day, and on our customers. I'm more excited for our staff and the excitement we get out of it." He's joining Kinch and Fox at Corton, and also plans to eat at Le Bernardin : "Paul Liebrandt and Eric Ripert [the chef at Le Bernadin] were in [to Coi] recently. And I'll go to Eleven Madison Park - I really like Daniel Humm [who cooked at Campton Place in SF], the chef there."

The ebullient Loretta Keller, a first-time finalist - "I was on the semi-finalist list several times, but I never made the short list!" - is leaving for New York early, because the theme of the awards reception this year is Women in Food, and she's been asked to cook for it. "We're doing braised Bolinas goats' tongues - 400 of them! -- with Meyer lemon, fenugreek, and a green tomato chutney with Anaheim chiles that my best friend Colleen McGlynn put up. She makes DaVero olive oil. I'm prepping in the kitchen at Elleteria of a friend and protégé, Akhtar Nawab, who worked at Bizou with me - he does contemporary American cooking with a nod to his Indian ancestry. He came up with the idea of zesting the lemon and dehydrating it into Meyer lemon powder." Asked about the award, she says, "I don't have hopes. I'm just happy to be going there. And it's good for business - especially now in these times." She, too, is planning to go to Prune, whose chef-owner, Gabrielle Hamilton, is an old friend.

Nate Appleman of A-16 and SPQR is nominated for Rising Star Chef of the Year ("a chef age 30 or younger who displays an impressive talent and who is likely to have a significant impact on the industry in years to come,") for the third year in a row, and thinks his chances are good: "The first year I didn't stand a chance, the second a slight chance - this year the others are all great guys, but being nominated three times, I just think it's my year." Busy traveling with his new book A-16 Food and Wine and having just announced that he's opening a restaurant in Tokyo with his partners, he'll be in and out of NY quickly: "I'll try to eat at Momofuku Ssam Bar and I always go to John Dory."

We didn't manage to chat with Nancy Oakes of Boulevard, a previous Beard winner for Best Chef, California, in 2001, whose restaurant is up for the prestigious Outstanding Restaurant award ("a national standard-bearer for consistent quality and excellence...must have been in operation for at least 10 or more consecutive years"). She, too, is cooking: the entree course for the separate Sunday Media Awards meal, which is natural Angus short ribs with creamed spinach, morels, and carrot-truffle relish. Boulevard has been nominated for Outstanding Restaurant for the past five years in a row, but not won the previous four times - so with a bit of luck, we'll be talking to her about her reactions to winning the award on Tuesday!


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