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James Beard Award semifinalists include 2 chefs, 2 restaurants from Louisville

by Steve Coomes

The 2012 James Beard Award committee just released its lengthy list of semifinalists and it includes two chefs and two restaurants from Louisville, and one from Midway, Ky.

Make no mistake, despite the food and drink creds these semi-finalists bring to the ballot, this is a highly politicized award, so expect the PR mills to grind at an insane pace through May 4-7, when the awards are presented in Manhattan. Whether that perpetual posturing sways judges remains to be seen, but what’s certain is a lot of people will be disappointed when they don’t win.

Why? Because this is the “Oscars of the restaurant world.” Big stuff to these folks, and I don’t blame them. Win a Beard award and you have great PR for life.

Oh, right, you want to talk about the local nominees. They are:

Lamas, Lee and Michel (sounds like a folk band, eh?) are old hats at this, veritable Susan Luccis if you count their unfulfilled nominations. Not surprised at all that they’re on the list again. More than deserving.

But Harvest as Best New Restaurant? Total surprise and an exceptionally cool one. Plus, if I’m not mistaken, that’s a first for a Louisville restaurant.

And I could be mistaken here also, but I think The Oakroom’s Outstanding Service nod is a first for our city, too. All fantastic stuff!

So, dare we handicap the overall race?

Well, if we’re stupid, we’ll try … so yes!

* Question 1: Will any of the Bluegrass team make it to the finals?

* Answer: I believe two of the three will: Edward Lee and Ouita Michel.

Why? Though all three are badass chefs with increasingly national profiles and incredible food, my money is on Lee’s history as a New York restaurant owner-chef having an influence. And since I don’t recall the last time a southern woman chef won a Beard award, I think the social odds could be with Michel on this one.

Is she as deserving as anyone to win based on the merits of her cooking? Without. A. Doubt. (Just as is hometown girl Kathy Cary, who has all the right stuff in the kitchen, but may lack the PR push to get her back on the Beard radar as she was in the past.)

Do my bets reflect negatively on Lamas or Seviche? Of course not. Great chef, great restaurant. There’s just far more to this Beard award thing than meets the eye.

Will either of those two win Best of the Southeast? It’s a longshot because his place is in Louisville, but Lee has a solid chance: He was a finalist last year, and his winning Iron Chef performance and long ride on Top Chef will not hurt.

* Question 2: Will Harvest win Best New Restaurant?

* Answer: No way. Great spot, great chef, well-loved locally, but it lacks national acclaim. Plus, it’s a Kentucky restaurant, and the state’s respect on the national food scene remains lower than it should. Could it become a finalist? Doubtful also. There are 19 other restaurants coming mostly from larger cities—places that are home to Beard award-winning chefs and restaurants—Harvest will have to best, and I don’t see that happening.

* Question 3: Will The Oakroom get Outstanding Service?

* Answer: Possibly. It’s a long-established restaurant with 15 straight Five Diamonds awards from AAA. Like Harvest, it doesn’t have much of a national profile either, so the fact that it got nominated at all tells me someone important has actually been there and was impressed.

Any locals missing from the list? Absolutely. Bruce Ucan (Mayan Café), the most underrated chef in Louisville, and Dean Corbett (Equus, Jack’s Lounge, Corbett’s), highly rated and correctly so.

Like I wrote, becoming a nominee is a combination of earned merit, talent and good PR. If you don’t have the best of all three, you won’t see May in Manhattan. (How any of them will even be at the awards that week is a mystery to me since it’s Derby Weekend!)

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