Sound Bites: 2016 James Beard Award Semi-Finalists

Instagram, @mabelgraykitchen

Instagram, @mabelgraykitchen

It’s that time of year again. Last week, the James Beard Foundation announced the 2016 semi-finalists. On March 15th, the finalists will be chosen. No matter, making any round of the JBFAs is an honor and a privilege to both rising culinary stars and vets who continue to innovate their dishes, cocktails, and/or concepts. Below, we gather some of the best sound bites from the past year of semi-finalists we have had the privilege of interviewing and filming with. Make sure to check out the full list of semi-finalists here.

James Rigato, owner at Mabel Gray in Hazel Park, MI
Nominated for: Best New Restaurant

On business so far at Mabel Gray:
“We handwrite the menu; it’s about an 8-12 item menu and it changes 25-50 percent a day. Most dishes don’t last longer than a week. A couple of dishes I kept around like this crazy fried (savory) banana (with cilantro and jalapeño) I kept around … it’s important to have offerings for people to talk about, come in and check out.”

On keeping it real:
“I’m (at Mabel Gray) all day, I prep everything myself, I have a great team, but a lot of dishes I’m prepping and butchering. It’s a blue-collar town, it’s a blue-collar job. I’m keeping it real. That’s what it comes down to. If someone comes in and says, “This isn’t the way it used to be,” that’s kind of the problem in any industry right? That’s why hip hop was shit on and that’s why modern art is frowned upon or graffiti is misunderstood … I don’t think I’m starting any trend … I have a $150 custom apron, that’s more than a chef coat costs. There’s still the focus on ingredients and quality down to my clothing. But I just think, like, if I was in a chef coat in this space, I don’t think I would fit in. There’s mismatched china and hand-written menus, we’re playing Tupac, there’s 40s of Budweiser and goat Bolognese … I don’t think a chef coat fits … Food is an equalizer. … This is just a restaurant I have fun in and I want to eat at.”

Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz, Boka Restaurant Group, Chicago
Nominated for: Outstanding Restaurateur

Boka Restaurant Group (BRG), helmed by Boehm and Katz, is compiled of chef partnerships and 12 chef-driven concepts, including Boka, Momotaro, Girl and the Goat, and the team’s newest venture, Swift & Sons, a large-format American steakhouse in the West Loop.

We spent 48 hours with Boehm and Katz as they prepared for the new restaurant opening. Check out the video below:


Daniela Soto-Innes, chef de cuisine at Cosme, NYC
Nominated for: Rising Star Chef of the Year

On her culinary roots:
“Growing up in Mexico City, everything is revolved around food. You turn around, there is a taco stand here, a quesadilla stand there. My family just eats a lot, all of the time. So I was always around the food.”

On Cosme’s approach to sourcing:
“We use Mexican techniques, but we use local ingredients. For instance, we have the key ingredients, which are the corn and the beans, and some of the dried chiles that we bring from Mexico. But we use a lot of local ingredients — we go to the market every time that the market is here — Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays — and try to use as much local food as we can.”


Greg Vernick, chef and co-owner at Vernick Food & Drink, Philadelphia
Nominated for: Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic

On the meal that changed his life:
“When I was young, we used to go to dinner in Philly’s Chinatown. We’d go to a place called Imperial Inn, which was your typical no-frills type Chinatown restaurant, but it was perfect. It was here that I first encountered the concept of a lazy Susan. I loved the idea of spinning the tray around so that everyone could share dishes, which is how I aim for people to eat at my restaurant today.”

Favorite local restaurant to eat at while not working:
“If I’m with the family, we go to Pizzeria Vetri. If it’s a date with my wife, we’ll go to Serpico.”

William Werner, Craftsman and Wolves, SF
Nominated for: Outstanding Baker

On how he got started in pastry:
“I started out cooking savory, I really enjoyed it. I just delved into all things cooking — books on books on books and research, and worked at a lot of different places, and then ended up working at a small restaurant that was chef-owned that had a pastry chef during the day, and I would go in and help her out a little bit, and I just came to find I really appreciated the focal point of pastry where you can be very conceptualized, even from an architectural standpoint.”

On developing the concept:
“In France and Japan, the pastry shops are very chef-driven, and so are our restaurants here [in SF]. But I wasn’t seeing your local neighborhood bakeries and pastry shops have this kind of style, for lack of a better term.”


Josef Centeno, Orsa & Winston, LA
Nominated for: Best Chef: West

On the first meal that changed his life:
“Les Célébrités in New York with my aunt and uncle. It was my first fine dining experience. Ironically it was also my last fine dining experience for a while because I ended up working there and working so much that I never had the time to go out.”

Favorite local restaurant to eat at while not working:
“Night + Market, Alimento, Rustic Canyon, and Gjelina whenever able. These guys are so inspiring on so many levels.”

Dana Rodriguez, Work & Class, Denver
Nominated for: Best Chef: Southwest

In the kitchen at Work & Class is co-owner and executive chef Dana Rodriguez, serving up Latin and American food like lamb sausage and blue corn empanadas. “We always use lamb,” says Rodriguez. “A lot of people don’t like lamb, but when you put it in a sausage, everybody likes it.” The empanadas are made fresh daily, and they’re fried-to-order. The blue corn tortillas keep the empanadas moist.

In the video below, we bring viewers into Work & Class, an intimate operation located in a shipping container, where we join Rodriguez in the kitchen and co-owner/“buck stopper” Delores Tronco in the front of house.


Bar Agricole, SF
Nominated for: Outstanding Bar Program

Translated, Bar Agricole means “farm bar,” and the menu changes daily depending on the supply and demand of local ingredients. But it’s not just the cuisine that is affected. Bar Agricole’s cocktails are also modern farm-to-table. Heading up the cocktail program are Thad Vogler and Eric Johnson, with Jai Wilson on all things wine. The cocktail menu includes concoctions like the Brown Derby (bourbon, grapefruit, lemon, honey, and bitters), Presidente (white rum, white vermouth, farmhouse curaçao, grenadine, and bitters), and the Bellamy Scotch Sour (blended scotch, lemon, honey, bitters, and egg white).

In the video below, we explore the back- and front-of-house at Bar Agricole.


Trick Dog, SF
Nominated for: Outstanding Bar Program

Nestled in a multi-story townhouse in San Francisco, Trick Dog is a drinking establishment run by The Bon Vivants. The vibe is decidedly homey with a warehouse feel, as a canine-themed neighborhood bar should be. Morgan Schick, the creative director, fell in love with bartending while working as the head chef at a nightclub in Portland.

In the video below, Schick walks us through three out-of-the-box cocktail creations — all named after calendar months and, naturally, dog names — including a drink built around a cheese garnish that includes whiskey, wine and beer.