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Local restaurateurs and popular sushi chef among Beard Award semifinalists

Written By Scott Joseph On January 27, 2023

MosoHenry Moso is a semifinalist for Best Chef: South in the 2023 James Beard Foundation Awards. Photo via Kabooki Sushi

The James Beard Foundation has announced the semi-finalists for its 2023 restaurant and chef awards. In what has become a near annual equivalent of Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown, some Central Floridians are on the list.

Brothers Johnny and Jimmy Tung, who built the Bento empire, are on the long list for Outstanding Restaurateur, a national category. They are up against 19 other semifinalists, including Mohamed Ali Alkassar and Niven Patel of Alpareno Restaurant Group (Ghee Indian Kitchen, Orno, and Mamey) in Miami. Besides the Bento Asian Kitchen + Sushi restaurants, the Tungs also have Doshi and Camille, the latter a popup restaurant that will move to a permanent location this year.

Henry Moso, chef/owner of Orlando’s Kabooki Sushi, has again been nominated in the Best Chef category for the South region. Although in years past the semifinalist list often included multiple chefs from Central Florida among the 20 names, Moso is the sole nominee from the area. There are other Florida chef nominees, but most are from South Florida. You can see the list of all semifinalists in each category here.

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TungsJimmy and Johnny Tung, of Bento Asian Kitchen + Sushi. Photo via Bento’s website

Judges will narrow the field of nominees to five names for the final ballot. This is the appropriate place to mention that seven New Orleans chefs have been nominated for the South region, so it will be interesting to see which two don’t make the cut.

I had been a judge for the Beardies from their inception in the early nineteen nineties but ended my association with the organization a few years ago over frustrations with the awards process.

Since then, JBF has endeavored to make changes, most notably making concerted efforts to include more diversity, not just among the nominees but among the judging panels as well.

But there was still the annoying fact that the selection of the winners did not involve anyone actually going to the restaurant and having the food. At least not contemporaneously.

Were I still a judge, I could vote for Moso as Best Chef even though I have not been to Kabooki in several years. Even so, my one vote wouldn’t matter much against the other judges from Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Puerto Rico and Louisiana who very unlikely have been to Kabooki ever. Judges, when they travel, will go to New Orleans especially for the restaurants. If they come to Orlando, it’s usually for the theme parks.

But a note on the James Beard Foundation’s website is offering a bit of hope. From the Restaurant and Chef Awards procedures:

“The subcommittee produces a ballot with approximately 20 semifinalists in each category (30 for Best New Restaurant). These semifinalists are announced in winter. Judges and subcommittee members are assigned semifinalists in their region to taste. They then score each semifinalist on a number of criteria determined by the subcommittee. The five semifinalists with the highest average score per category (10 for Best New Restaurant) are announced as the nominees.”

Then, after the list is culled to five finalists:

“Judges and subcommittee members dine at nominees, participate in discussions to share their dining experiences, then vote for winners. The top scoring nominee per category is announced as the winner.”

This is encouraging, but I have questions. (I’ve reached out to Dawn Pamore, vice president of awards for the Beard Foundation, but she had not replied by the time of publication.)

Is the Beard Foundation paying for the judges to travel to other states in their region to visit these restaurants?

Are judges reimbursed for their meals?

What constitutes “dine at nominees” – a multi-course meal or an appetizer at the bar?

Is there one panel of judges and subcommittee members who will visit all 20 nominees in a category?

I think I know the answers to these questions, but I’ll hold judgement until I hear back from JBF. If I ever do.

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