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Isaac Becker and his wife, Nancy St. Pierre, after his win at the James Beard Awards in New York City.

Rick Nelson, Star Tribune

Best chef in Midwest: Isaac Becker

  • Article by: RICK NELSON
  • Star Tribune
  • May 12, 2011 - 9:22 AM

NEW YORK - It was Isaac Becker's night at Monday's James Beard Foundation Awards in New York City. On his fourth consecutive nomination, the Oscars of the food world annointed the 112 Eatery and Bar La Grassa chef/co-owner as 2011's Best Chef: Midwest.

In an evening of rambling acceptance speeches, Becker's stood out for its Midwestern brevity and modesty. He escorted his beaming wife and business partner, Nancy St. Pierre, up to the podium with him, and immediately thanked her for "always telling me if things are good or bad."

Brief shout-outs to his parents and kids followed, chased by nods to "the guys" back at their Minneapolis restaurants and to Jay Sparks, the D'Amico & Partners chef who served as Becker's longtime mentor. Then Becker looked out at the black-tie crowd and said, "And that'll wrap it up. Thanks."

Later -- seriously, much later, as it was a typically lengthy program -- Becker was catching all kinds of congratulatory wishes from the mobs thronging the lobbies of Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall. It was easy to spot him. He was the guy with the yellow ribbon around his neck and the ear-to-ear grin on his face.

"I'm just so happy," he said. "It's the third-happiest day of my life, after the births of my two kids."

St. Pierre noted that, when they called home to share the good news, their son asked if he could wear the gold medallion. No chance, said Becker. "I'll be wearing it to bed," he said with a laugh.

Along with Becker's fellow nominee, Lenny Russo of Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market in St. Paul, the 21st-annual awards gala sported other Minnesota connections.

Sameh Wadi, chef/co-owner of Saffron Restaurant & Lounge in Minneapolis, was one of 25 top chefs from around the country selected to cook for the gala's 2,000-plus attendees. He prepared a lamb shoulder carpaccio wrapped around bulgur and preserved lemons and garnished with radishes, pine nut yogurt and mint. It was a wowser, a standout in a room of culinary standouts.

Surreal is the word Wadi used to describe the experience. "I mean, I got to shake Jacques Pépin's hand," he said. "I'm not washing that hand for a week."

Twin Citian Andrew Zimmern, host of the Travel Channel's "Bizarre Foods," did himself proud as a presenter at the ceremony, effortlessly charming the heck out of the dreadful pre-scripted banter; the guy should run for public office.

Best-dressed honors might have to go to the ever-dapper Marcus Samuelsson. The former Aquavit chef stood out in the sea of black tuxedos in a crisp, beautifully tailored white spring suit.

Another local connection: Chicagoan Richard Melman, founder of the Lettuce Entertain You dining powerhouse, was named Outstanding Restaurateur on his sixth straight nomination. Lettuce Entertain You operates several Twin Cities restaurants, including Tucci Bennuch, Twin City Grill, Wildfire and Big Bowl.

Memorable acceptance-speech moments included Lifetime Achievement Award winner Kevin Zraly. The wine authority pulled off his jacket, dropped to the floor and knocked off nine push-ups. Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune, winner of the Best Chef: New York City award, sarcastically noted that, "All you have to do is open a can of sardines and a box of saltines, call it a signature dish and get named Best Chef: New York City," totally underselling her brilliantly quirky East Village restaurant.

Saipin Chutima of Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas, a three-time nominee, said through an interpreter that she felt "like the bride and not a bridesmaid" in winning Best Chef: Southwest.

And Gabriel Rucker, chef of Le Pigeon in Portland, Ore., and 2011's Rising Star Chef of the Year, thanked his parents, "for letting me do what I wanted to do, and not pushing me into college."

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