simone faure of la patisserie chouquette photo by greg rannells

James Beard Foundation names 6 St. Louis restaurateurs and chefs among 2023 semifinalists

The James Beard Foundation released its list of semifinalists for 2023 this morning, with six St. Louis-based chefs, restaurateurs and venues making the cut. 

Michael and Tara Gallina and Aaron Martinez of Take Root Hospitality are nominated among 20 restaurant operators from around the country in the Outstanding Restaurateur category. Take Root had a busy 2022, adding Bistro La Floraison and Taqueria Morita to a portfolio that already included Vicia and Winslow’s Table. Bistro La Floraison and Taqueria Morita placed third and sixth respectively in Sauce’s Best New Restaurants of 2022.  

“It's wonderful to see that our hard work is being honored,” said Tara Gallina. Gallina added that the nomination honors the efforts of the entire Take Root group as a team, rather than the contribution of any individual. “I think our food and beverage programs speak for themselves, and I’m incredibly proud of what our team creates every day,” she said. “But behind the scenes we're also working to create a really wonderful business and place to work, and to provide a positive experience for our team members and all of that as well goes into that restaurateur category.”

Three St. Louis chefs are in the running for the Best Chef: Midwest award, including Nick Bognar of Indo (and the soon-to-open Sado on the Hill), Rob Connoley of Bulrush, and Loryn Nalic of Balkan Treat Box (with new Balkan-inspired cafe Telva at The Ridge set to open soon in Webster Groves). 

“I wanted a snow day, but I guess instead I got a semifinalist nomination, so that's pretty cool,” Bognar said. Indo was a Best New Restaurant semifinalist in 2020, with Bognar also receiving Rising Star Chef of the Year semifinalist nominations in 2019 and 2020. “It makes me feel cool and a little bit more grown up too, so I'm excited to be on the grownup list,” he added.

Loryn Nalic said it was “overwhelming” to receive a semifinalist nomination for Best Chef: Midwest – her second. “We're growing, and growth requires me to step out of the kitchen from time to time, and it's hard to do that because that's where my heart is,” she said. “And my family, Edo and Emir and the rest of our team, really I just can't stop thinking about them. They're just everything, and the main reason why something like this would even be possible.”

Nalic also said her nomination reflects a shift in the way fast-casual restaurants like Balkan Treat Box are regarded by the industry. “I think it speaks volumes about how people are choosing to eat and what they want to eat and how they would like to eat,” she said. “I think it's pretty phenomenal to include a space like ours in this world, just to be acknowledged I think says a lot about where food is and where it's going, and what we appreciate as people that dine out.”

The semifinalists don’t receive any feedback from the James Beard Foundation on why they have been nominated. However, Bulrush chef-owner Rob Connoley said he hopes his nomination is an acknowledgment not just of the quality of food served at his restaurant, but also its sense of mission. “We're purposely trying to redefine what fine dining should be in a changing climate and a changing society. And so for us it's the pressure of digging deeper and deeper in our research and properly attributing food, and properly compensating staff. And the food on the plate, yes, it has to be good but it almost becomes secondary to the bigger picture of what we're trying to accomplish here,” Connoley said. “They could have come in and just had a really great piece of meat and said, ‘Wow, this is good,’ but you can’t get out of Bulrush without hearing the history and the stories and that overall comprehensive experience and the research.” 

La Patisserie Chouquette in Botanical Heights is a semifinalist in the newly added Outstanding Bakery category. It’s the first time in its 10-year history that the bakery has been recognized by the James Beard Foundation. Owner Simone Faure said she gasped out loud in the bakery when she received the news, provoking a chain reaction, equal parts shock and delight, that culminated in a round of applause from both bakers and customers in the store.

Faure described the nomination as “a huge honor” for her and her team after a decade of baking at La Patisserie Chouquette. “I look at my team every day they come in, we don't look for accolades,” she said. “We keep our heads down and we make really delicious things that we're proud of, and we hope that people enjoy them. And so when you do get recognition that you know is big, is huge, it helps you to feel like maybe you weren't invisible, maybe you were doing something that other people found value in, and that feels good.”

St. Louis also received a nod in the Outstanding Bar category, with The Gin Room named to a 20-strong list of semifinalists. "It was definitely quite the surprise, and still surreal," said Natasha Bahrami by text from Oaxaca, Mexico, where she has been hosting Ginworld Oaxaca. Bognar said that as first-time nominees, both The Gin Room owner Natasha Bahrami and Faure set an example of the type of work ethic that inspires him. “When it comes to The Gin Room, and it comes to Simone [Faure], people who are in the restaurant industry, they have been doing it their whole lives, Natasha and Simone, every day whether they get a reward or not, they're going to do just as good, they're going to kick ass. And I want to be in that same boat too.”

natasha bahrami of the gin room // photo by virginia harold

In addition to the six St. Louis-based nominees, Scratch Brewing Company in Ava, IL made it to the semifinalist list alongside The Gin Room in the "Outstanding Bar" category. Co-owners Marika Josephson and Aaron Kleidon received a semifinalist nomination for Outstanding Beer, Wine and Spirit Producer in 2020.  

Gallina said that recognition in events like the James Beard Awards can have a significant impact on a restaurant’s profile in the broader restaurant industry and among customers in St. Louis and far beyond. “It is really impactful on the business, because people do look at those lists and a lot of people make their travel plans based on who is recognized on a list like that,” she said. “So to be able to be included amongst that and be on someone's radar that maybe wouldn't have known about us before is a really powerful, powerful thing.”

Aside from receiving his own nomination, Bognar said he’s excited to see St. Louis so well represented in this year’s James Beard semifinalists. “I'm just excited to see as many names from St. Louis as there are, and it's just so well deserved,” he said. “The Gallinas and Aaron [Martinez] for the restaurateur nomination, and of course Simone is one of the best bakers in the country and I love seeing that – she’s my neighbor as well, too – and Loryn too, and Rob. It’s fucking awesome.”

Shortlists for the final round in each category will be announced on March 29, with the awards being handed out at a ceremony in Chicago on June 5. 

Editor's note: The article was updated on January 26, 2023, to include comment from Natasha Bahrami and to acknowledge Scratch Brewing Company's semifinalist nomination.