The announcements of 2020’s James Beard Foundation Awards winners ended up being chaotic for a fundamental reason: Though the shortlist had been announced months before and final decisions made since, no awards would be given out. 

“An honor which we know is held in high regard, at the moment, feels minor when compared to the dire situation we are in,” James Beard Foundation CEO Clare Reichenbach wrote in a press release at the time. In fact, the press release went on to state, the foundation would also forego awards in 2021 as well as it wrestled with the dire conditions of restaurants and workers, the clouds of suspicion cast across many of the high-profile institutions associated with the awards, and the stark lack of diversity in the foundation’s list of finalists that year. A pause was in order. 

Two years later, with a new list of values and procedures made public by the foundation, the awards are back. The long list of semifinalists includes 16 North Carolina restaurants, six of which are Triangle-based. Five Triangle chefs are contenders for Best Chef Southeast: Oscar Diaz (The Cortez, Raleigh), Sunny Gerhart (St. Roch Fine Oysters + Bar, Raleigh), Cheetie Kumar (Garland, Raleigh), Ricky Moore (Saltbox Seafood Joint, Durham), and Aaron Vandemark (Panciuto, Hillsborough). Alley Twenty-Six also made the list in the Best Bar Program category. 

“We are incredibly proud, flattered, and surprised. It is great company to be in,” says Shannon Healey, owner of Alley Twenty-Six, which is ringing in its first time as a semi-finalist.

For other local restauranteurs, the James Beard awards are familiar territory. Ricky Moore, chef and owner of Saltbox Seafood, first made it to the Best Chef Southeast semifinalist list in 2019 before losing out to Mashama Bailey at The Grey in Savannah, Georgia. 

“It feels good to be recognized, always, and I’m super grateful,” Moore told the INDY over the phone on Wednesday afternoon, as he stepped away from the Brazilian Fish Stew he’d been making. “I take everything in stride and like I said, those things that come are just, you know, feathers in the hat. And all the other candidates who also got nominated—North Carolina’s got some good cooks, man. Really good practitioners and chefs who have a reverence for our terroir.” 

Cheetie Kumar, the chef and co-owner at Garland, is also a veteran of the Beard awards: This year marks her fifth nomination. She was a semifinalist for the Best Chefs in America category in 2017, 2018, and 2019, and a nominee for the category in 2020. 

“It’s always so wonderful to have this happen but it just feels a little different, you know? It’s been so long since we’ve had anything to celebrate, in our industry. I’m at a loss on how to feel—there’s so much recovery, and it feels so difficult,” Kumar says over the phone, adding that the pushback from customers unhappy with precautions hasn’t helped

“We require proof of vaccination and that and most people are really grateful for that because it’s not something a lot of restaurants in Raleigh are doing,” she says. “But we still get pushback from the folks who are less than kind about it and that really stands out, unfortunately.”

Still, Kumar adds, though James Beard Foundation awards are not accompanied by any pandemic finish lines, it still feels good to celebrate with other local restaurants. 

“I’m particularly thrilled to see so many chefs from the Triangle on the list,” she says. “I think that makes me happier than anything.”

Winners will be announced at the James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards ceremony on Monday, June 13, 2022, in Chicago. 

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