When the James Beard Foundation revealed the semifinalists for its 2016 James Beard Awards on Feb. 17, three Asheville chefs were on the list. Nate Allen of Spruce Pine destination kitchen Knife & Fork and Brian Canipelli of Cucina 24 are competing against each other among nominees for Best Chef: Southeast, and Cynthia Wong, formerly of Rhubarb, is up for Outstanding Pastry Chef.
Since chefs tend to be hardworking, busy people, perhaps it isn’t surprising that at least two of Asheville’s three nominees had a clue they’d received the honor until their phones lit up after the semifinalists were announced.
“I was out that morning running errands deep in the regions of no cell reception,” says Allen. “I have never expected to be on any of those lists. But when I got back to cell reception, I had all these messages congratulating me from [Brian] Canipelli and Elliott [Moss] and all these people, and I just had to sit there and wonder what could possibly be going on.”
Allen says he grew up helping out in the kitchen in a family where love and support were expressed through food. “We were Southern Baptists, so if somebody got married, had a baby, or died, you were going to make a dish and take it to them,” he says “We are the Covered Dish People. And I grew up with the understanding that it was just what you did; you just cooked.”
He says he never considered cooking as a profession until he went to Eastern Carolina University to study jazz composition. “While I was there, I went into massive credit card debt feeding everybody at my house. But my parents were kind enough to bail me out if I changed my career and went to culinary school. And that’s what I did.”
Allen attended the Johnson & Wales University culinary program before moving to Providence, Rhode Island, where he interned with Kyle McKnight who now runs Hickory’s Highland Avenue. He spent a ski season working in Steamboat Springs, Colo., before moving to Los Angeles to work for Suzanne Goin at Lucques.
“I wanted to work for a woman and see if the kitchen environment outside of that uber-masculine craziness would be as refreshing as it seemed it would, and to see how that would effect my sensibilities and my approach to everything,” he says.
Allen worked his way up to sous chef at Goin’s second restaurant, A.O.C., before leaving to become a private chef for Hollywood celebrities for over five years. Then, in 2009, Allen made a major leap of faith when he decided to open a high-end, farm-to-table restaurant in the one-stoplight town of Spruce Pine.
But his food spoke for itself, and within a few short years, Knife & Fork had become a destination for foodies from around the country. His ruthless experimentation and curiosity has led him to use the slow season as a time to recreate the restaurant, staging pop-ups highlighting various world cuisines, which allow him to learn new techniques and flavors.
Wong was also caught off-guard by news that she’d been nominated for a James Beard Award. “I had just bought my kid a bookshelf, and I was scraping the paint off of it when a friend texted me and said, ‘Congratulations, you were nominated!'” says Wong, who recently left her position as pastry chef at Asheville’s Rhubarb after her husband accepted a job in Charleston. The Alabama native’s accent occasionally and endearingly peeks out through the lilt of her alto.
“I’ve always known that I wanted to be a baker. Ever since I was little, that’s just what I wanted to do,” she says. Wong began baking in cafés in San Francisco in the ’90s before going to France for culinary school. She later moved to Barcelona, where she met her husband at a free Spanish class.
Wong took a break from cooking and baking, but continued to work in the field as a writer and food stylist before being hired by Billy Allen of Decatur, Ga.’s, Cakes & Ale as the pastry chef. From there, Wong went on to make a name for herself at Atlanta’s legendary Empire State South, before a stint in London, and finally a move to Asheville. She joined Rhubarb in July to help owner John Fleer launch his recently opened bakery and café, The Rhu.
But it isn’t just experience that makes a great chef, Wong observes. It also takes the faith and support of others. “Hue made it really hard to work for anybody other than Hue,” she recalls of her time at Hue Acheson’s Empire State South. “When he believes in you and see’s that you can do your job and do it well, he empowers you and gives you the freedom, staff and equipment, and is so supportive in letting you just do what it is you do. It was a great place to work.”
Wong says she plans to continue that experimentation in Charleston, but isn’t quite sure where. “I haven’t decided what I’m doing yet,” she muses. “There are a lot of great restaurants and a lot of great people down here. It’s just a matter of seeing who is going to be the best fit for me in terms of what I want the next step in my career to be. It’s exciting.”
There’s no word on how Canipelli discovered his nomination. He’s on vacation in Italy, but his staff says they saw the results in the onslaught of reservations that followed in the wake of the news.
An Atlanta native who graduated the from the culinary program of Johnson & Wales University in 2002, Canipelli found his way to Asheville where he worked his way up the ranks at Savoy and Table before becoming sous chef at Rezaz. In 2008, he opened Cucina 24, specializing in rustic Italian cuisine employing Appalachian ingredients.
I’d be remiss to point out that as someone who often interviews chefs, I usually try to do so over dinner at their favorite restaurant in an attempt to keep the conversation easy and casual. That being said, the vast majority of the time, with the majority of chefs, we wind up dining at Cucina 24.
The finalists in all categories for the 2016 James Beard Awards will be announced on Tuesday, March 15. Winners will be announced at the James Beard Awards Gala at Lyric Opera of Chicago on Monday, May 2. For details, visit jamesbeard.org.
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