Chef's Surprise

And the winners are . . .

We don't know yet. The 2001 James Beard Award nominees have been released, but victors won't be announced until April 30. That leaves a couple of local chefs waiting eagerly, since a food pro receiving a James Beard Award is akin to an aspiring actress posing in Playboy -- overnight fame follows.

Keeping their fingers crossed are chefs James McDevitt (Scottsdale's Restaurant Hapa), Mark Tarbell (Tarbell's in Phoenix) and Robert McGrath (Scottsdale's Roaring Fork Restaurant).

My money's on McDevitt, who has been nominated for the Rising Star Chef of the Year, competing against four other national candidates. This award goes to a chef, age 30 or younger, who displays an impressive talent and who is likely to make a significant industry impact in years to come, press materials say. McDevitt, at 29, just squeaked in under the age limit, but is securely qualified in the talent requirement. This is the fellow who feeds us such inspired American-Asian food as lobster-wrapped Maine diver scallop with potato blini and sake beurre blanc or seared California squab with kabocha squash purée, Chinese broccoli and Thai basil oil.

It's a bit harder to pick a favorite for the Best Chefs in America/Southwest Division category. Besides three other regional candidates, Tarbell and McGrath are going head-to-head against each other. But I'm going to go with McGrath on this one, given that criteria calls for chefs who have set new or consistent standards of excellence in their respective regions.

While Tarbell certainly has many fans, his menu isn't all that representative of our region. Plus, "New American" food is everywhere these days, and tossing some adobo onto cornmeal-crusted calamari isn't much of a stretch.

Roaring Fork, on the other hand, takes its Southwestern spirit by the horns, offering dishes such as beef fillet glazed with coffee and molasses "shellac" on stewed tomato with "tumbleweed" potatoes, plus green chile macaroni. And you know he's got to want it -- he's been nominated for this category six times but has never won.

Best of luck, too, to Mary Elaine's at the Phoenician, nominated for the Outstanding Wine Service Award. This goes to the restaurant that displays excellence in wine service through a well-presented wine list, knowledgeable staff and efforts to educate customers about wine. Accepting the award would be wine director Greg Tressner.

At least one miffed Valley chef wants to know who chooses nominees, wondering if ballot stuffing is going on. The answer is more than 600 food, beverage and journalism professionals across the nation, so cheating's probably difficult.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet