Today's news of the James Beard Awards semifinalists had barely been out an hour before readers and friends started messaging me by Twitter, text, and email. What did I think of the Arizona nominees, and how was that list created, anyway?
A committee from the James Beard Foundation selects the semifinalists from among 21,000 entries submitted in an online open call -- and that's the extent of the details available about it. Who's on the committee, and what are their criteria? I'd like to know just as much as you would.
For the next round, finalists will be chosen by a panel of more than 400 judges across the country, which includes restaurant critics, food and wine editors, food educators, and previous James Beard Award winners.
I was not surprised to see Vincent on Camelback in the running, as chef Vincent Guerithault has been nominated before. Same goes with Kevin Binkley (Binkley's) and Beau MacMillan (elements), two more repeat nominees. And considering what a destination Barrio Cafe has become for chef Silvana Salcido Esparza's alluring modern Mexican food, it was a pleasant surprise to see her name in the mix this year.
But I must admit, I was taken aback by St. Francis as a contender for Best New Restaurant in the country.
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Four months ago, when I reviewed chef Aaron Chamberlin's high-style new eatery, I wrote, "The food was comforting and tasty, but I can't stop thinking there was a disconnect between the sophisticated vibe and the basic offerings, especially in light of the chef's fine-dining background (and the army of talent in the kitchen). Simple can still be dazzling, you know."
Without a doubt, St. Francis has a great vibe, but I've had inconsistent dining experiences there. As much as I've been rooting for its success, I felt (and still feel) that Chamberlin is holding back, and could do more to wow diners.
When the best dish on the menu is flatbread, could a restaurant possibly be worthy of the destination status that a Best New Restaurant award bestows?
Maybe if the contest were limited to CenPho.