Last week, the chef/co-owner of 112 Eatery and Bar La Grassa was named Best Chef: Midwest by the James Beard Foundation. Here's his take on being a winner at the Oscars of the food world.
Q So, you're sitting in a black-tie audience at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall, your wife and business partner Nancy St. Pierre is at your side, and your category finally comes up. Can you describe that moment, from your perspective of a four-time nominee?
A Every year, that point in the awards becomes more and more stressful. This is the first year where I thought I had a better chance than the previous years, but I was sitting there thinking, 'I can't take this.' When they said my name, Nancy and I looked at each other, then we hugged each other. I went from being sick with nerves and thinking I was going to have a heart attack, to incredible joy, in a second. Like that [snaps fingers]. Going up on stage wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. I didn't know what I would do if I did win, but you're so happy that whatever nervousness you have is second fiddle to how happy you are. I can't remember the last time I was so happy. Everything suddenly had such a shine to it.
Q I loved that you and Nancy walked to the podium together, hand in hand. Was that planned?
A I can't take credit for the success I've had, or the success that the restaurants have had, without her. I wouldn't feel right leaving her sitting down there. Although most people recognize her more than they recognize me, because she's out on the floor, she doesn't get a lot of the glory. I just really wanted her to be as much a part of it as possible.
Q What does it mean for you to win the James Beard award?
A On a personal level, I've always been really insecure about how my peers feel about my work. There has always been a part of me that has felt like a little bit of an impostor. I don't feel like I'm the same kind of chef as a lot of other chefs. And now I feel like I'm legitimate, that I have the respect of my peers. That's nice.
Q How about for the people working at 112 Eatery and Bar La Grassa?
A I know how I would have felt, had I been a sous chef or a line cook in a restaurant where the chef won a James Beard award. It would have been great. What's funny is, I remember when I was a chef at [Cafe] Lurcat. We worked so hard, and the reviews were not so great, and it was such a terrible feeling to walk in to the kitchen and say, 'Sorry, guys, maybe we'll get them next time.' This is the opposite of that feeling. Everyone here feels great. It's nice to be able to say, 'You're all part of this. You've all contributed to the success.' Especially Denny [Leaf-Smith, chef de cuisine at 112 Eatery] and Erik Sather [chef de cuisine at Bar La Grassa]. I couldn't do this alone. And for me, it legitimizes their work, too. They're working hard. They're being recognized.
Q I imagine you spent a fair amount of time on the phone that night. Who got the first call?
A My kids. Then my mom, and my dad, and the restaurants, and I told everyone to break out the champagne. It's kind of sad, in a way, that you can't be in your restaurant to celebrate. Well, it's not that sad [laughs], because you're treated so well at the awards. It's wonderful.
Q Were your kids waiting for the call?
A I think they kind of forgot [laughs]. My youngest, Winnie, said, 'It's ours. Our family won.' There was a banner when we got home that said, 'We won.' Our older son, Klaus, he's a teenager, so he's pretty reserved and cool about everything, but we were driving around and he said, 'It's pretty cool to have a dad who's the best chef in the Midwest.' And I was like, 'Thanks, Klaus.'
Q What are you going to do with medallion?
A We'll probably hang it at the 112. It'll be the only thing we've ever displayed.
Q Does the award say anything about the 112 Eatery?
A What's great about the 112 winning is that it's a casual restaurant. It wasn't really a conscious plan on my part, but I wanted the 112 to be different from any other restaurant in town. And one of the ways that I thought it would be different would be applying fine dining techniques and fine dining ingredients in a casual atmosphere, with casual prices. Make it accessible to everybody, and now you see that more and more around the city. I think that's the reason why we won.
Q Is it better to be nominated four times, or to win?
A The thing is, I sort of got the best of both worlds. It's great to say that I'm a four-time nominee, and it's great to say that I'm a winner. That's awesome [laughs]. I feel like being nominated four times says that I'm not necessarily a flash in the pan, where you could make the argument that, had I won the first year, that it could have been a fluke. But now I'm done, which is a huge relief. My life had become before and after the James Beard awards. First you worry about the semifinals, then you worry about the nominations, and then you worry about going to New York. I don't have to worry about any of that anymore. That's really a liberating feeling.
Q I imagine that a win generates a lot of buzz. But what about a nomination?
A What's funny is that this year the semifinalists were a big deal, and a couple years ago I don't recall even knowing about them. This year there was a lot of high-fiving going on after the semifinalists were announced, and I was thinking, 'Guys, we're not quite there yet.' But getting a nomination has always been great, and I would never want to change anything that has happened. But you do get to the point where you kind of want to win. Sitting in that auditorium can be really nerve-racking.
Q Are you a worrier by nature?
A I'm a very paranoid, insecure nut [laughs]. I can find a cloud in a silver lining so fast. Sitting in that auditorium, there was nothing that made me feel confident or good about what was happening. Especially when they started to read the names of the other chefs in my category, because there was no reason why I couldn't see any one of them winning. That's why the shock of winning is really, you know, wow.