He's a winner: After four consecutive nominations, Alex Roberts, chef/owner of Restaurant Alma was named Best Chef: Midwest at last week's James Beard Foundation Awards in New York City. In the dining room of his local-foods-focused restaurant, Roberts talked about the mechanics and emotions behind being handed his industry's highest honor, sharing the evening with his wife, Margo, and their 3-month-old daughter, Nia Belle, and his aversion to the word "best."
Q How were you feeling prior to the awards? Anxious? Nervous? Calm?
A Definitely nervous. A funny thing happened when we arrived at the airport. We were the last people off the airplane, and when we finally got down to baggage claim, just two bags pop out, and it's our two bags. That has never happened to me, I'm always the last guy waiting for the bag. I looked at my wife and I said, 'This is a good sign. I just might win this thing.' Other people seemed to think -- more than I did -- that this was my year, that I was going to win.
Q Did you prepare a speech, just in case?
A That afternoon I wrote a couple of notes on a piece of paper, which I didn't end up taking out of my pocket [laughs], but it helped me think about what I would say. I thought, 'I just have to relax.' And I did. When they called my name, it was a nice feeling. I feel like these are such big moments in a person's career that you have to find a way to enjoy it, even if it's the most nerve-racking thing in the world for you. I force myself to do things I'm a little uncomfortable with, like public speaking. Now I'm actually starting to enjoy it, at age 38. It's only been 20 years of working on it [laughs].
Q What does this award say about this point in your career?
A That word 'best' is a tough word for me to be comfortable with because I don't feel that I'm the best at anything. But I feel like this is an endorsement, that what we do is very good, and that many people think that what we do is very good. It feels good to accept that.
Q Alma is relatively casual. Does the award underscore anything about that element of the restaurant?
A It definitely points to this idea, this paradigm, of what excellence is. It's not just one that's based upon a formal model. It says that this trend toward more casual fine-dining is here to stay. Given our level of resources, it was our only choice when we opened Alma, but it also fits my personality. I've always been a person who is a little more casual.
Q Does your award also send an encouraging message to the local foods movement?
A That may have been the sweetest part of the whole thing for me. Every year since we've opened, we've increased the percentage of locally sourced food and organic food that we serve here at the restaurant, so I guess that a vote for me was essentially a vote for all of those things. I have to give credit where credit is due, because when you cook with ingredients of that quality, it just elevates your cooking.
Q I imagine that the evening's emphasis on mentorship had special meaning for you. True?
A Yes. For me, being a hands-on chef is the way to be a mentor. A big reason why the guys who run my kitchen have learned so much is because I am right there with them, working with my hands, sharing what I know. Now they're the ones passing that along to the new guys. It's important to teach, to empower others who work for me, so that they can go out and succeed.
That's the amazing thing about the Beard. It feels so egocentric because it has my name attached to it, but I really believe that it's a restaurant award, that it's a reflection of everything that is happening in the restaurant. And, really, all my places [Roberts also owns Brasa, in Minneapolis and St. Paul], because you can't separate a person from all of their work. You don't run your restaurants to win awards; you do it to please the customer, to have a sense of accomplishment for yourself, to execute your vision. But it's certainly nice to be recognized for it.
Q Is there a beneficial economic impact to the Beard awards?
A I don't know if there is one after being nominated four times, but I think that there's something about winning. Again, it's the whole 'best' thing. People like the winner; people like first place. It will be interesting to see. La Belle Vie got a nice push of business last year after Tim [McKee] won. We don't think of ourselves as the best in the Midwest, but we'll certainly do our best.
Q Back to last week's event. What happened after you delivered your speech?
A They sweep you down to the press room and take a few photos. The Beard awards are often criticized as being kind of New York-centric, and the press room probably reflects that a bit. People there were looking for the more visible winners, and that was fine; I thought it was funny. From there, you walk back upstairs at Avery Fisher Hall to return to the auditorium, and so I came up to the second floor to this open concourse, and there was my wife, sitting there, nursing the baby. We had this wonderful moment, the three of us, this little spark. That may have been the best moment, just us being there together, hugging.
Q Was the reception one giant congratulations?
A When you have that medallion on, people make a point of stopping by and saying hello. It's wonderful. Joan Nathan, the author, approached me and talked about a meal that she had at Alma years ago. She said that she had voted for me every year and how glad she was that I had won. It made me realize about all the interactions I've had with people at the restaurant over the years. You just don't know who is coming in and being impressed.
Q What's going to happen to the medallion?
A I wore it yesterday under my shirt so I could show it to my staff [laughs]. I'll find a place for it. I've always been impressed by the humility that I saw in most New York restaurateurs about their Beard awards. The awards themselves were very rarely placed in the front of the restaurant. It wasn't about coming in to pay homage to the chef, about saying, 'Look how great we are.' People are here to have a meal first, and if they care about the award, there is a chance for them to see it. I want people to come to Alma and be impressed by the experience. That's my style.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757