James Beard finalists include an East African restaurant in Detroit and Seattle pho shops

Full Screen
1 / 10

Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

Hamissi Mamba talks to customers at his restaurant, Baobab Fare, Friday, May 24, 2024, in Detroit. For Hamissi Mamba and Nadia Nijimbere _ who own Baobab Fare in Detroit _ a win among the five finalists in the James Beard's "Outstanding Restaurateur" category would be personal. The couple, who fled Burundi about a decade ago, faced a difficult road as refugees opening a business in America. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

CHICAGO – An East African eatery in Detroit, longtime family owned Seattle pho shops and a Palestinian chef using ancient cooking techniques in Washington, D.C., are among the dozens of finalists for this year’s prestigious James Beard Awards.

The culinary world’s equivalent of the Oscars will recognize restaurants and chefs in 22 categories at a ceremony set for Monday in Chicago.

Recommended Videos

The nominees cover a diverse range of cuisine and chef experience, a recent shift following turbulent, pandemic-era years for the James Beard Foundation. The most-anticipated categories include awards for outstanding restaurateur, chef and restaurant.

Hamissi Mamba and Nadia Nijimbere, who fled Burundi about a decade ago and now own Baobab Fare in Detroit, are among five finalists in the outstanding restaurateur category. The couple faced a difficult road as refugees opening a business in the U.S.

Their restaurant’s menu features kuku, pan-fried chicken in a tangy mustard-onion sauce that's served with fried plantains, stewed yellow beans and coconut rice.

“We inspire a lot of refugees — refugees who are coming to this country without hope and one day thinking that they can win this kind of title,” Mamba said. “It’s a big deal for us, because we want to show people that this world can be equal.”

The James Beard Foundation has bestowed awards since 1991, except in 2020 and 2021 when the organization scrapped them as the restaurant industry was reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic. The foundation was also facing criticism over a lack of racial diversity and allegations about some nominees’ behavior. Foundation officials vowed to improve ethical standards and be more “reflective of the industry.”

Restaurants apply for the awards. Judges, who mostly remain anonymous, try the cuisine before voting. Nominees are reviewed for the food as well as for a behavioral “code of ethics,” including how employees are treated.

“We are looking at the whole plate,” said Tanya Holland, chair of the awards committee.

For restaurants, just being a finalist can bring wide recognition and boost business. Restaurant awards have become less common in recent years, giving the James Beard Awards even more weight, said Paul Freedman, a Yale University professor whose expertise includes food history.

“It really calls attention to restaurants that might not be all that well known outside their region,” he said.

A Seattle family credited with bringing the first pho shop to the city in the 1980s is also a finalist for outstanding restaurateur with a trio of pho restaurants and their chicken and rice shop called The Boat.

Yenvy Pham, whose parents opened their first restaurant after immigrating from Vietnam, calls a bowl of their pho, with its beefy bone broth and anise and clove aromatics, a “sure thing.” They make the soup fresh every day over 24 hours.

“It’s wild,” she said. “It’s a great honor.”

The other restaurateur finalists are Chris Viaud with three restaurants in New Hampshire, Hollis Wells Silverman with the Eastern Point Collective that runs several Washington, D.C., restaurants, and Erika and Kelly Whitaker for restaurants in Boulder, Colorado.

Some finalists are already lauded, including Michael Rafidi, whose Washington, D.C., restaurant Albi was awarded a coveted Michelin Star in 2022. He is among five finalists for outstanding chef.

Albi, which is Arabic for “my heart,” pays homage to Rafidi's Palestinian roots by using Old World food preparation techniques. Everything is cooked over charcoal, including grape leaves stuffed with lamb and sfeeha, a meat pie.

“There’s a mission for me to continue to spread light and cook Palestinian food,” he said.

Another finalist for outstanding chef is David Uygur, who runs a tiny Italian restaurant in Dallas. Lucia features fresh pasta made in house and a popular cured meat board. The menu changes seasonally.

Uygur, whose father is Turkish, became interested in Italian food because of love. His high school sweetheart, now wife, loved Italian cuisine. He wanted his restaurant, with just nine tables, to feel intimate.

“I wanted the restaurant to feel like someone was coming to eat our house,” he said. “I wanted our guests in our home.”

Other outstanding chef finalists include Sarah Minnick for Lovely’s Fifty Fifty in Portland, Oregon, Dean Neff of Seabird in Wilmington, North Carolina, and Renee Touponce for The Port of Call in Mystic, Connecticut.


Associated Press writer Mike Householder in Detroit contributed to this story.

Recommended Videos