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South Florida's Restaurants and Chefs Proving Award-Worthy

Meet this year's James Beard Foundation Award nominees and what they are cooking up in Miami and Palm Beach.

The music industry has the Grammys, for film it's the Academy Awards and the television industry's top prize is the Emmy. For chefs and restaurant industry professionals, it’s all about the James Beard Foundation (JBF) awards

Known as the "Oscars of food,” the annual award acknowledges the top chefs and restaurateurs across the country. While the 2017 JBF season is over, it's a perfect time to taste the cuisine of those that made the cut this year.

From laid-back seafood joints to sophisticated international restaurants, the nation’s most prestigious culinary academy has taken note. This year, five South Florida chefs made the semi-finalist cut, each one bringing something new and unique to the area’s already impressive dining scene.

When chef Michael Lewis of KYU found out his restaurant made the long list for "Best New Restaurant," he was “at the restaurant, naturally,” he said. “We were speechless but so excited."

Lewis’ chic Wynwood restaurant specializes in modern Asian small plates with a strong emphasis on yakiniku, Japan’s rich grilling tradition. The technique has become increasingly popular throughout the United States, but Lewis introduced it to Miami diners with his own American twist.

Committed to sustainable practices, chef Michael Lewis sources local ingredients, reducing transportation waste while providing the freshest ingredients. (©Juan Fernando Ayora)

He uses sustainable meats in creative dishes like duck breast “burnt ends” and Wagyu beef brisket with black shichimi pepper.

“There are some really fun tongue-in-cheek references on the menu and our team, from the kitchen to the bar and everyone in between, seems to really have fun when they come to work,” Lewis added. 

While KYU is considered one of the hottest restaurants in South Florida—it’s notoriously difficult to snag a reservation between 7 and 9 pm—it isn’t the only Wynwood place to make the James Beard list. The art district dominated the awards in 2017.

Bread-maker Zak Stern, aka 'Zak the Baker,' received a nod for "Outstanding Baker." About five years ago, Stern started shelling loaves baked out of a garage. Now, he owns both a bakery and a deli in Wynwood and his kosher bread graces the menus of some of the city’s finest restaurants. Top toques Michael Schwartz and Michelle Bernstein are huge fans of his traditional sourdough country bread.

Zak Stern aka Zak the Baker
Zak the Baker is 100 percent owned by its bakers. (©Platonic Studios)

While Stern has worked hard and studied his way to success—he learned the trade while traveling around Europe—he believes his James Beard nomination has more to do with the evolution of South Florida’s culinary credibility more than anything else. After years of following the trends of New York City, San Francisco, Chicago and other American culinary capitals, Miami chefs have been introspective—cultivating a food-driven voice that honors the area’s rich multicultural heritage.

“I’m not the first to come to South Florida and bake great bread,” said Stern. “There have been many before me. I came at a time when Miami was ready for something of its own, sprouted from its own soil.”

Stern is proud of the fact that he hasn’t revolutionized or innovated anything, yet his process of honoring age-old practices has transcended expectations of what it means to be kosher.

A few blocks away, Brad Kilgore of Alter picked up his second-consecutive semifinalist nod for "Rising Star Chef," bestowed upon up-and-coming chefs, 30 years old and younger who are likely to make a significant impact on the restaurant industry.

Chef Brad Kilgore's kitchen of his renowned restaurant, Alter. (©Gourmandj)

Inside a former industrial warehouse, Kilgore uses locally sourced seasonal ingredients in his artistic New American tasting menu, arguably the most coveted chef’s tasting in the entire state. There, guests savor dishes like local sashimi and dill ice cream with trout roe.

At the time of the announcement, Kilgore stated, "It's been a goal of mine for my whole career. My team and I at Alter just keep our heads down and keep cooking."

Just like Kilgore, Deme Lomas of NIU Kitchen picked up his second nomination this year for "Best Chef: South." The cozy restaurant specializes in tapas. It sounds overrated nowadays, but unlike the ubiquitous sliders and mac and cheese bites that are found on small plate concepts around the U.S., Lomas looks to Spain for inspiration.

NIU Kitchen
Ous made with poached egg, potato foam, crispy serrano ham and black truffle. (©Stephan Goettlicher)

“What I wanted to offer was to make tapas Barcelona-style, different from the rest,” he said.

That includes dishes ranging from traditional gazpacho and boqueros (marinated anchovies), to wahoo crudo and poached eggs with truffled potato foam, all of which are intended to pair with the restaurant’s Iberian-focused wine list.  

Two hours north of Miami, Clay Conley is no stranger to the James Beard Awards. He made the “Best Chef: South” list again this year for his acclaimed Palm Beach eatery Būccan.

Clay Conley
Chef Clay Conley outside of his famed Palm Beach restaurant, Būccan. (©Andy Ryan)

“I know ‘small plates, big flavors’ sounds cliché, but it truly sums up Būccan,” said Conley. “Each dish stands out fully on its own, tells its own story.”

Although Conley owns a mini empire of restaurants in Palm Beach County—including Japanese-inspired Imoto and casual Italian Grato—when he opened Būccan back in 2011, it transformed the county’s dining scene, spurring a new generation of chefs to look at local flavors and products rather than staid continental traditions.

“In the last five or so years there has been quite a bit of growth in chef-driven concepts,” Conley said.

Just like the region itself, South Florida’s dining scene has grown up. One thing is for sure, South Florida restaurants and chefs are holding their own against culinary powerhouses across the nation.

We couldn't agree more with Chef Conley who said, “People have started to recognize the awesome potential here.”