As the Oscars are to film and the Grammys are to music, so the James Beard Awards are to the restaurant industry. And when the semifinalists for the 2020 honors were announced on Feb. 26, Asheville racked up five nods. The feeling for Chai Pani chef and owner Meherwan Irani — who is celebrating his fifth turn as a semifinalist in the Best Chef: Southeast category — is “like seeing your home team win the Super Bowl,” he says.
Cúrate and Button & Co. Bagels chef and owner Katie Button, who is appearing on the list for her sixth time since 2012, agrees. “It’s amazing that a city with less than 100,000 people has five semifinalists across so many categories,” she says.
In addition to Irani and Button in the Best Chef: Southeast category, Cultura — an innovative collaboration between Wicked Weed Brewing and Table/All Day Darling chef and owner Jacob Sessoms — is among the Best New Restaurant semifinalists; Benne on Eagle’s chef de cuisine, Ashleigh Shanti, was tapped for Rising Star Chef and John Fleer, chef and owner of Rhubarb, Benne on Eagle and The Rhu, is one of 20 national culinary legends vying for Outstanding Chef.
Fleer’s multiple appearances as a semifinalist and finalist date back to 2006 and include his chef roles at Blackberry Farm and Canyon Kitchen before he opened Rhubarb. “For me, it’s the persistence category,” Fleer says with a laugh.
He remembers his first time in the category Best Chef: Southeast. “It really came out of the blue. All of the people I looked up to had been recognized in that category, and I didn’t see myself in that arena with people I had long admired.”
Button’s first inclusion as a semifinalist was in 2012 in the Rising Star Chef category. “I was floored,” she remembers. “Our restaurant had only been open a year, and it really surprised me that people were paying attention to us.”
Irani had a similar reaction to his debut. “It was a complete shocker!” he says. “I went to the list on the website, and thought, ‘How did I get here?’ We’re making Indian street food in this tiny restaurant in a little town. It took me a while to realize it was validation that what we were doing was relevant.”
Fleer points out that within the diverse range of cuisines, styles, restaurants and chefs, everyone representing Asheville on the 2020 list has an inherent commonality. “I think we all share core values in terms of why we’re here in this town with the resources it has and the commitment to those resources and local product,” he reflects. “When I sent Jacob a congratulatory text, I told him that I couldn’t imagine how any of this would have happened without his trailblazing in opening Table so many years ago .”
The final nominees for the 2020 JBF Awards will be announced March 25, and the James Beard Awards Gala takes place May 4 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Button, who has attended three times, says it’s a fancy black-tie night for professionals who spend their workdays in chef jackets, aprons and clogs.
“It’s just amazing to be in the same space with people who you have admired for so long, to be in that company. You feel proud and grateful and at the same time unsure about why you’re there,” she says. “But everyone is so supportive of everyone else, and no matter what happens, you just want to ‘cheers’ all the people in your category. I know everyone always says it’s an honor just to be nominated, but it really is an honor.”