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Fingers Crossed for Colby!

Once again, Kansas City’s favorite homegrown chef and restauranteur is up for the Best Chef Midwest award from the James Beard Foundation. If you’ve read much of this blog, you know I’m big fan of Chef Colby Garrelts and bluestem.

In the dining room you can get one of the best meals in the city, the lounge is perfect for incredible cocktails and small plates, and recipes from the bluestem cookbook are go-to’s for a great dinner party or just a phenomenal meal at home.

The Kansas City Business Journal recently featured Chef Colby and his sixth nomination for the award. Take a look…..

Bluestem chef awaits word on elusive James Beard Foundation award  

Kansas City Business Journal by Brenna Hawley, Web Reporter

Chef Colby Garrelts is no stranger to success in a kitchen. He co-owns fine-dining restaurant Bluestem in Kansas City and is co-developing Native 34 in Leawood. He’s won Food & Wine Magazine’s Best New Chef award. He’s managed and cooked at restaurants in Chicago, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

But one award has eluded him for the past five years — a James Beard Foundation Award as Best Chef Midwest. Winning in his sixth year nominated would put him in an elite group with three other area chefs — Celina Tio, Michael Smith and Debbie Gold.

“It really is an affirmation of who we are and what we’ve done,” Garrelts said.


PHOTOS: See where local James Beard chefs are now


Ironically, what puts Garrelts over the top this year may not be the dishes he serves at Bluestem, but the recipes.

A cookbook he and his wife, Megan, published in November may give his restaurant the exposure it needs to those Beard Foundation voters who haven’t made the trek to dine at his 46-seat restaurant.

Garrelts finds out the first week in May at a ceremony in New York whether he will be the fourth Kansas City chef to win Best Chef Midwest and the first local chef to win while working somewhere other than The American Restaurant.

“It’s the place where you really have the opportunity to showcase,” Tio said of The American Restaurant. “It’s a learning ground for those who move up and out of the city and into other places.”

Garrelts cooked at the fine-dining restaurant in Crown Center while he was in culinary school and admitted it might be easier to win a James Beard Award if he were still there. But all of the past local winners went on to open restaurants, something Garrelts already has done.

Tio won her award in 2007, the first year Chicago chefs weren’t included in the Midwest region. She opened Julian in Brookside in 2009, serving casual fare.

When diners hear that Tio has won a James Beard Award, they sometimes expect fine dining and high prices. The same goes for customers who visit because they’ve seen her on TV. They expect the almond cake with hot-sauce fresh ricotta cheese and hot-sauce caramel that she prepared on Food Network’s “Next Iron Chef” rather than the slow-cooked pork belly, parsnip puree and sherry-glazed pearl onions on her menu at Julian.

“I’m not cooking for ‘Iron Chef’ judges,” she said. “I’m cooking to make a living. I’m trying to be a neighborhood place.”

Local, more relaxed eateries and the chefs behind them are showing up more often among James Beard Award nominees.

Tio is excited by the change because not every chef will land in a situation with big budgets to pay for exotic, expensive ingredients.

“They’re going more toward who’s making solid, delicious, innovative food,” she said.

Smith leveraged his innovative food into two successful local restaurants: Michael Smith and Extra Virgin, which serves items like duck tongue tacos.

Foodies care about the James Beard Award, he said, but common diners may have little idea what it is. Staying in business depends on continuing to provide high-quality food and service.

“You’re only as good as your last meal,” Smith said. “It doesn’t matter if you won the James Beard Award, if you won Food and Wine (Magazine’s best new chefs), if you’re on TV.”

But the award can make a difference to a very important group: investors. It can cost millions to open a new restaurant, and a James Beard Award can make a chef more bankable.

The award also allows chefs to recruit better cooks who want to work under an award-winner.

“It changes the culture in your kitchen,” Smith said. “Your kitchen becomes a better place to train.”

Smith won the Beard Award as Best Chef Midwest in 1999, the third year he was nominated. He and Debbie Gold won the award that year while working together at The American Restaurant. They later opened 40 Sardines in Leawood, which would win a James Beard Award for best restaurant graphics in 2002.

Running a restaurant in Kansas City is difficult, Smith said, because many local diners are satisfied with corporate-owned eateries like The Cheesecake Factory.

“Kansas City loves chain restaurants,” Smith said. “Until Kansas City supports local, award-winning chefs with a fervor, then (the award) doesn’t mean as much.”

RECIPE FOR SUCCESS
Here are past Kansas City-area winners of the prestigious James Beard Foundation Award as Best Chef Midwest:
1998: Stroud’s Restaurant and Bar, America’s Classics award.
1999: Michael Smith and Debbie Gold, Best Chef Midwest, American Restaurant. (Smith now owns Michael Smith and Extra Virgin.)
2007: Celina Tio, Best Chef Midwest, American Restaurant. (Tio now owns Julian.)

 

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