The semi-finalists for this year's James Beard Foundation Awards have been announced, and Madison has acquitted itself extremely well.
Elizabeth Dahl of Nostrano was nominated as Outstanding Pastry Chef, Forequarter as Best New Restaurant, L'Etoile for Outstanding Wine Program, Daniel Bonanno from A Pig in a Fur Coat as Rising Star Chef of the Year (for a chef under age 30), and John Gadau and Phillip Hurley of Sardine for Best Chef - Midwest (a title won in 2012 by L'Etoile's Tory Miller).
The Beard process starts with a call for entries that is open to the public; voting can take place online. This year there were over 44,000 votes, says Providence Cicero, chair of the James Beard Foundation's Restaurant and Chef Awards Committee as well as a restaurant critic for the Seattle Times.
Some categories garner a lot of public voting. "When we started 'Best Bar Program' two years ago, it got a lot of votes," says Cicero. "A category like wine professional gets far fewer, because these are people who often aren't as widely known."
From there, 20-25 volunteer panelists in each of the 10 regions of the country (Great Lakes, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, Northeast, Northwest, New York City, South, Southeast, Southwest, and West), most of whom are food journalists, editors, cooking school teachers and past nominees, do their best to winnow the list down to the semi-finalist list (PDF) that was released Tuesday.
Cicero says that they look for knowledgeable representatives from various parts of the country to "funnel information to people on the committee." For instance, "If I can't get to Montana," to check a restaurant out, says Cicero, the Foundation finds someone who is on the ground there. "The vetting process isn't perfect," says Cicero -- "We're not Michelin, we can't send someone to every restaurant." But the network of experts system has worked out well as a basis for the awards.
After the list of semi-finalists is announced, the next step is for the panelists and past winners to vote. "The largest bloc of voters is the past winners," says Cicero, considering that there are over 20 years of winners eligible -- approximately 300 chefs.
Those voting must have eaten at the restaurants they are voting for, says Cicero. Voters can cast up to five votes in each category. The top vote-getters then become the five finalists in each category, where the same group of judges again vote (although this time one vote per category, and the voting group becomes smaller due to the must-have-eaten-there caveat).
"It's exciting that over the years, there's been a geographical stretch, and a huge growth in chef talent," says Cicero. "There are pockets of the country where food and cooking is thriving," says Cicero, citing not just Madison but towns also becoming well known for smart cuisine like Austin and Charlotte. "It's exciting to me that there's more than one Madison restaurant on the list."
The final nominees will be announced on March 18, and the final awards ceremony will take place May 6. To stay up-to-date, follow @beardfoundation on Twitter.