Trio of Asheville chefs make semifinals for ‘Best Chef in the Southeast’

Last year, the James Beard Foundation's "Best chef in the Southeast" award went to Ashley Christensen of Poole's Downtown Diner in Raleigh. This year, Asheville chefs John Fleer, Maherwan Irani and Katie Button are in the running for the region, which includes Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia in addition to our state. Image from

Founded in honor of cookbook author, educator and American cuisine enthusiast James Beard, the James Beard Foundation’s mission is “to celebrate, nurture, and honor America’s diverse culinary heritage…” And three Asheville chefs — John Fleer of Rhubarb, Meherwan Irani of Chai Pani and MG Road and Katie Button of Nightbell and Curate — also have reason to celebrate food following nominations for Best Chef: Southeast in the foundation’s 2015 Restaurant and Chef Awards.

Meet the Asheville candidates:


Chef John Fleer opened Rhubarb in 2013 and already has plans for a second, downtown eatery, due to open this fall. The Winston-Salem, NC native, who also acts as executive chef at Canyon Kitchen in Cashiers, is no stranger to the Beard accolades. He was named a Rising Star of the 21st Century in 1999, and this year could be his fourth time making the finalist round for Best Chef in the Southeast after previous candidacy in 2006, 2007 and 2011.

Photo of Rhubarb's John Fleer courtesy of the chef
John Fleer of Rhubarb. Xpress file photo


“It seems that the typical Indian restaurant is in a rut — the ubiquitous lunch buffet, white table cloths and ornate plates, slightly austere service, and a predominantly North Indian menu,” says chef Meherwan Irani of Chai Pani and MG Road. “I wanted to bring the rest of India to the table — the colorful, vibrant and exquisite flavor profiles, the innovative regional diversity, the fun, excitement and bright flavors of street food, and the simple refinement and comfort of home cooking.”

Meherwan learned to cook at his mother’s side in Ahmednagar, India, and then moved to the U.S. in 1990 to pursue an MBA. After a 15-year career in sales and marketing, the then San Franciscan returned to the kitchen with a renewed zest for the culinary arts. The self-taught chef was nominated for Best Chef in the Southeast in 2014.

Photo of Meherwan Irani courtesy of the chef
Meherwan Irani of Chai Pani. Xpress file photo


Neuroscientist-turned-chef Katie Button dabbles in many fields, but the new mom is best known among Ashevilleans as a driving culinary force behind Spanish tapas bar Cúrate as well as Nightbell restaurant and lounge. In addition to being featured by national publications like The New York Times, Southern Living and Food & Wine, Button was recognized as a “Best Chef in the Southeast” semifinalist in 2012 and 2013 and as a finalist for the same award in 2014.

Xpress recently chatted with a busy Button about her new cookbook, new baby girl, and the experience of hosting television series “The World’s Best Chefs.” Click here for the full interview.

Photo of Katie Button courtesy of the chef
Katie Button of Curate and Nightbell. Xpress file photo

Although the three local foodies have already withstood careful culling of an initial 35,000-entrant pool, their next hurdle is as daunting as it is democratic; a panel of former winners and food moguls will soon decide, by popular vote, which of the Southeast’s 20 semifinalists advance.

Five finalists will be announced from the James Beard House in New York City on Tuesday, March 24, and one winner from each region will receive an official James Beard Award for display in his or her home — or kitchen — on Monday, May 4, from the 2015 awards gala in Chicago.

For more information on the James Beard Foundation, visit


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About Kat McReynolds
Kat studied entrepreneurship and music business at the University of Miami and earned her MBA at Appalachian State University. Follow me @katmAVL

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