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Florida Passed Over in List of James Beard Award Finalists

Written By Scott Joseph On March 20, 2012

The finalists for the 2012 James Beard Foundation Awards have been announced, and, once again, Central Florida has been passed over for recognition. So, too, all of Florida, for that matter. In fact, of the five finalists for the Best Chef in the South region, four are from the city of New Orleans.

The South region finalists are Justin Devillier, La Petite Grocery, New Orleans; John Harris, Lilette, New Orleans; Tory McPhail, Commander’s Palace, New Orleans; Alon Shaya, Domenica, New Orleans; Chris Hastings, Hot and Hot Fish Club, Birmingham, AL. 

Hey, how’d the Birmingham guy get in there? What makes this even more galling is that Commander’s Palace has, for years now, been producing not just mediocre but totally substandard fare. It rests solely on its laurels, and the judges — I am one — flock to the restaurant when they visit New Orleans and apparently are too timid to say that the emperor hasn’t been wearing clothing for quite some time.

And so deserving chefs — this year’s semifinalists, James and Julie Petrakis, Henry Salgado, and Scott Hunnel — once again go unrecognized simply because they have made the horrible mistake to live and ply their craft in Central Florida. For Hunnel, the offense is even more egregious: he works for Disney.

Hunnel has been a semifinalist for several years now. Becoming a finalist is, in many ways, a long-distance-runner sort of thing. It takes time to get the name out there in front of the judges. And the judges can only vote for chefs whose food they’ve eaten, which of course makes sense. (How could they have eaten the food at Commander’s Palace and still have voted for it??? Sorry, I got side-tracked.) So, judges have to have visited Central Florida and eaten in one of the nominated chefs’ restaurants in order to cast a vote for one of them. That only makes sense.

There is no team of judges or reviewers that goes out and scours the nominees, so it’s in large part serendipitous. And that’s a shame. Because if there were, our very talented chefs, some of whom could cook circles around past winners (and at least one present nominee) would get the recognition they so richly deserve.


Here is a link to the complete list of James Beard Award finalists. The winners will be announced at a black-tie ceremony in New York on May 7.


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