In creating the recipe for a James Beard Foundation Awards finalist, the city of Asheville is starting to appear regularly as a key ingredient. Often described as the Oscars of the culinary world, the James Beard Foundation Awards honor the best in cuisine and food literature. When the 2017 nominations were announced on March 15, Asheville chef John Fleer and author Ronni Lundy were among the finalists, as was homegrown talent Camille Cogswell .
Lundy, who is originally from Kentucky, is nominated for a JBF Book Award in the American Cooking category for her new book, Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes. Both an author and editor, Lundy formerly wore the career hats of restaurant reviewer and music critic. On March 5, Victuals (pronounced “vittles”) received the 2017 International Association of Culinary Professionals award for best American cookbook.
Fleer, a North Carolina native, received his fifth JBF nomination in the Best Chef — Southeast category. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Fleer is the executive chef and owner of downtown restaurant Rhubarb and café and bakery The Rhu. Before landing in Asheville, Fleer worked as a personal chef to the late Mary Tyler Moore and was the executive chef at Tennessee’s famed Blackberry Farm. He also opened Canyon Kitchen at Lonesome Valley in Cashiers in 2009.
Cogswell, who was named a finalist for 2017 JBF Rising Star Chef of the Year, spent her formative years in Asheville. She now lives in Philadelphia where she works at Israeli restaurant Zahav. Born in Worcester, Mass., she and her family moved from Fayetteville, N.C., to Asheville when she was 11. “Growing up, she was interested a lot in baking,” says her father, Daniel Cogswell, an Asheville psychologist.
But it turned out to be a class at Asheville High School that lit the fire for her career trajectory. “Really where she got her start, her inspiration and her passion for it … was a culinary program that started at Asheville High School,” says Daniel Cogswell. The high school’s culinary arts program was the vision of instructor Joe Lilly, who later served as a mentor to Camille.
“I learned a lot [in Lilly’s program],” says Camille Cogswell. “And my desire to cook … my seriousness about it. … I found this passion that I had in his class. He really nurtured it. I owe so much to him.” Cogswell took her first cooking class as a sophomore and was able to work in the school’s state-of-the-art kitchen.
“She just lit up with it,” says her father. These cooking classes led to an internship her senior year at West End Bakery in West Asheville. “[Cooking] was the thing that stayed constant … for her, no matter what else was going on,” he adds.
Following graduation, Cogswell had aspirations for culinary school but felt college was necessary to ensure that cooking was her true passion. However, after a year and a half at UNC, when the time came to declare a major, she knew cuisine was her calling. She ended up enrolling in the Culinary Institute of America in New York, where she went on to win the school’s Katherine Angell Academic Achievement Award.
She later interned with Blue Hill chef and The Third Plate author Dan Barber, then worked at restaurants including The NoMad in New York before ending up in Philadelphia. There it was Zahav chef and co-owner Mike Solomonov who told Cogswell about her JBF Rising Star Chef of the Year nomination.
“He’s such an awesome guy to work for,” she says. “He’s really put a lot of trust in me and given me this platform to do what I’m doing now.”
The JBF website describes the Rising Star Chef of the Year as “a chef age 30 or younger who displays an impressive talent and who is likely to make a significant impact on the industry in years to come.” At age 26, Cogswell is the sole pastry chef nominated in her category and the only woman. “”I’m pretty honored to be representing both of those categories,” she says.
So how did it feel to be nominated?
“It was so surreal,” she says. “I was so shocked and so overcome with gratitude. It’s so exciting, especially for someone so early in their career as me. I’m excited for what’s to come.”
The James Beard Foundation will announce this year’s winners on Tuesday, April 25. The James Beard Awards Gala will be hosted by Jesse Tyler Ferguson (of the television show “Modern Family”) on Monday, May 1, at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.