Wednesday afternoon brought the James Beard Foundation’s annual announcement of its semi-finalists. As in past years, the Triangle food scene has a sturdy footing in the list, which recognizes chefs and restaurants on both a regional and national level.

Preeti Waas, owner of Cheeni Indian Food Emporium in Raleigh, was nominated for Best Chef Southeast; a nomination that follows quick on the heels of Ricky Moore’s nomination and subsequent award for that title in 2022.

“I’m thrilled that my team and I have a place that once seemed beyond imagination for a home cook,” Waas told INDY Week. “Especially in an area that is teeming with culinary talent.”

Kingfisher, Michelle Vanderwalker and Sean Umstead’s farm-to-table cocktail bar off East Chapel Hill Street in Durham, was nominated for Outstanding Bar. Kingfisher opened in the summer of 2019, the first of Vanderwalker and Umstead’s three concepts which now include dynamic eatery Queeny’s, located in the space directly above Kingfisher’s, and the fast-casual burger QueenBurger, now open off Blackwell Street, right by the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

“We are very humbled and excited to be recognized by JBF,” Vanderwalker told the INDY in response to the news. “We are really proud of what Kingfisher is and the incredibly hard work Kacey and our bar team put into it every day. It’s a nice surprise to hear that other people think what we do in our basement is as cool as we do!”

“We set out with intentions to make what we thought could be one of the best bars in the world and really put our hearts into every detail of the experience,” Umstead adds.

In total, North Carolina scored 11 semifinalist nods. Finalists will be announced on March 29 and the awards ceremony will be held on June 5 in Chicago.

The James Beard Awards returned in 2022, after a two-year hiatus, wherein the Foundation says it took time to reflect and rethink its approach to the prestigious culinary awards.

“This is always an exhilarating moment as we kick off the Awards cycle and recognize the outstanding achievements of individuals and teams across the country,” Clare Reichenbach, CEO of the James Beard Foundation, wrote in a press release. “After a year of fundamental changes, we look forward to building on the progress
made, celebrating those paving a better future for us all.”

Preeti Waas’s star in the Triangle has risen steadily over the past few years. An adjunct culinary professor at Wake Tech, Waas owned two small-batch food businesses, Sugar and Spice Kitchen and Jolly Good Jams, before expanding those into Indian-inspired tea shop Cheeni, which Waas opened in the Poyner YMCA in 2019. In early 2021, she opened a second Cheeni location at the Alexander YMCA off Hillsborough Street.

The shops then found their final form in Cheeni Indian Food Emporium, which opened to widespread acclaim in the Falls River Town Center in April 2022.

“To be seen at all is validation—but to be celebrated for exactly who we are, and what we choose to cook every day, is already a huge win for us all at Cheeni Indian Food Emporium,” Waas says.

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