This time last year, Cheetie Kumar was in Chicago for the James Beard Awards, toasting to the news that Ashley Christensen had been awarded the title of Outstanding Chef.
This year, Kumar, the chef-owner of Raleigh’s renowned Indo-Pan-Asian fusion restaurant Garland, was in North Carolina when she received the news that she is a finalist for a Beard award as well—Best Chef: Southeast.
“It feels like a lifetime ago,” Kumar told the INDY over the phone. “And you know what life and what day to day life was like a year ago—who could have predicted this? But nevertheless, it’s a much welcome and needed bit of good news and really positive energy for our team.”
Normally a glitzy celebratory affair, the awards—the biggest distinction in the culinary world—have a particularly powerful register in a time when the food industry has been upended. Many of the restaurants recognized in the awards, including Garland, have been closed since March.
“Anything like this is always unexpected,” Kumar adds. “Right now it’s extra surreal because we can’t celebrate with our team.”
Born in India and raised in the Bronx in New York, Kumar moved to Raleigh in the 1990s, where she pursued her love of food and music, eventually combining the two. Alongside Garland, she is the owner of the music venue Kings and adjoining cocktail bar Neptunes, and plays in the rock band Birds of Avalon, earning her a niche distinction as a rocker-restaurateur.
She’s previously been named a James Beard semifinalist in 2017, 2018, and 2019 in the Best Chef: Southeast category.
“It’s gonna be a really different Garland, at least for a little while,” she says about any plans to reopen. “We’ve already mourned that, we’ve been through the resistance of that and all of the emotional aspects of having to reinvent something that you already loved and didn’t want to reinvent. But you know, that’s just the reality. This whole thing is not really about what we want to do but what we have to do as individuals and as businesses.”
The Best Chef: Southeast category encompasses chefs in North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, and Kentucky; this year’s finalists are all based in either North Carolina or Tennessee. Other finalists in the category this year include Asheville’s Katie Button of Cúrate and Tennessee chefs Cassidee Dabney, Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman, and Julia Sullivan.
“It was clear that those whose work in 2019 led them to be selected as a semifinalist—and perhaps ultimately a nominee or a winner—deserved the recognition they earned,” James Beard Foundation’s Mitchell Davis wrote in a blog, “Those we consulted felt the Awards could also offer a glimmer of hope to an industry looking for light in a very dark time.”
Raleigh writer and cook Kaitlyn Goalen, who is executive director of AC Restaurants—and married Ashley Christensen in February—was also recognized for her cookbook Cook Like a Local: Flavors That Can Change How You Cook and See the World, which she co-authored with the Houston chef Chris Shepherd. The book is a finalist in the American cookbook category.
The award announcement was originally slated for March 25, but was postponed due to the pandemic. The award ceremony, meanwhile, has been pushed back to September.
“It doesn’t mean any less because I know that we’re going to come back from this,” Kumar says. “We’re going to make sure that we do.”
Contact deputy arts and culture editor Sarah Edwards at email@example.com.
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