A Minnesota chef could bring home the James Beard Foundation award for the third consecutive year.
Isaac Becker of 112 Eatery and Bar La Grassa in Minneapolis and Lenny Russo of Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market in St. Paul are vying for Best Chef: Midwest honors at the Oscars of the food world, which will take place Monday evening at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City.
The Best Chef: Midwest award, one of 10 regional chef awards bestowed annually by the foundation, honors chefs who "have set new or consistent standards of excellence" in Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri.
This year marks Becker's fourth consecutive nomination, and Russo's second. Last year, Alex Roberts of Restaurant Alma won top honors; Tim McKee of La Belle Vie was handed the medallion in 2009.
Russo and Becker are competing with five-time nominee Colby Garrelts of Bluestem in Kansas City, Mo., as well as two first-time Wisconsin nominees: Justin Aprahamian of Sanford in Milwaukee and Tory Miller of L'Etoile in Madison.
Becker got the news of his nomination while he, his wife and co-owner, Nancy St. Pierre, and their children were vacationing in Paris. The foundation was making the announcement from a luncheon in Portland, Ore., and the time difference meant that it was nighttime in France as the news started dribbling out, one awards category at a time.
"I spent a good four hours, just searching online, and panicking," said Becker. "I even signed up for a Twitter account so I could follow it, and when I started seeing congratulations messages to other chefs, and I wasn't hearing from anyone, I figured it wasn't a good sign."
The stress was mounting. Becker eventually went to the Star Tribune's website. "And it took a long time to load on my phone," he said with a laugh. "But then I finally saw my name, and then I just lay down on the floor."
What happens if Becker hears his name being called after the words, "And the award goes to ... "?
"The chefs, myself, Nancy and her staff, we would all be elated, of course," he said. "And it would be nice to no longer have to worry about it anymore. When I opened the 112, I never thought that I would have this problem. Not that it's a problem. I barely knew what the James Beard award was back then."
Ask Russo to pick an emotion, and he chooses "thrilled."
"It's really flattering just to be included, and to be welcomed, with open arms, into that elite group of chefs and restaurateurs," he said. "It's great to be nominated, and I would really love to win. It would be gratifying not just for me, but for all the people who work here, because we're so collaborative about the way we do things. It would be a win for the team and especially for my long-suffering wife."
That would be Mega Hoehn, the restaurant's co-owner. Then there's the St. Paul factor.
"I'd like to be able to say, 'We're in St. Paul, and we won,'" Russo said. "We're the little sister of the big girl next door, the red-headed stepchild of the Twin Cities, so it's nice to get noticed once in a while."
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