Edward Lee, 610 Magnolia
Julian Van Winkle III and Preston Van Winkle.

Edward Lee, co-owner and chef at 610 Magnolia, and Julian Van Winkle III, owner of Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery, are finalists for the James Beard Awards, arguably the most prestigious honors given out to U.S. restaurant food and beverage pros.

For the second year in a row, Lee is nominated for Best Chef, Southeast, and, save for a chef from Atlanta, is facing competition from four smaller-market chefs such as Athens, Ga., Chapel Hill and Cashiers, N.C., and Charleston, S.C.

More proof that you don’t have to cook in a major metropolitan area to produce noteworthy and award-winning food. (In fact, given smaller communities’ closer proximity to farm-fresh ingredients is yielding more nominations outside big cities. Just a hunch.)

(It’s worth noting that Anthony Lamas, chef-co-owner of Seviche in Louisville, and Ouita Michel, chef-owner of Holly Hill Inn in Midway, Ky., were Best Chef, Southeast, semifinalists this year.)

One of six nominees for Outstanding Wine & Spirits Professional, Van Winkle is in the running against such venerable personalities as Sam Calagione from Dogfish Head Craft Brewery (I like his Discovery Channel show, “Brew Masters”), and Paul Grieco, who oversees the beverage programs at New York City’s famed Terroir Wine Bar and Hearth Restaurant.

Van Winkle was nominated last year as well, and traveled to New York for the ceremony, which is held each May. When I dined with him last fall, he said, in his typically low-key manner, he wasn’t certain he belonged among that crowd of nominees, but I’d bet bourbon fans across the nation would disagree.

So why does this matter much to readers such as you?

Two reasons:

1. Should either man win a Beard Award, it would help raise the national food and beverage profile of Louisville and Kentucky. That would give the region additional respect it continues to earn, and it could draw more chefs and beverage makers to the area, which is good for all of us.

2. The Beard Awards are viewed as the Oscars of the culinary world, and if you know either of these guys, it’s hard to not want to see them with a Beard medal around their necks. Perhaps their time has come in 2011.

Best of luck, boys!

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Steve Coomes
Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 24-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Louisville magazine, Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass and Food & Dining Magazine. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.

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