When the 2017 James Beard Award finalists were announced, I wondered if the awards would play out differently for Philadelphia than they usually do. For the past couple of years, there have been plenty of pre-nominations for Philly-area restaurant professionals, but by the time the finalists are announced, there are just a handful of people still in the running. This year, there were just six finalists from the city I love to eat and play in (it's just 15 minutes across the bridge from my home in South Jersey), but wow, did Philadelphia clean up this year.
Three of the top awards went to Philadelphia restaurant professionals — Outstanding Chef, Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic, and Outstanding Restaurateur — and there's a lot more to know about each of them.
Michael Solomnov, Outstanding Chef
If you follow the James Beards Awards, Solomnov's name may already be familiar to you. He won his first Beard award in 2011 when he took home Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic. In 2016, he won two awards for a cookbook he wrote with business partner Steve Cook, "Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking." The cookbook won Book of the Year and also International Cookbook.
This year, Solomnov won what's basically the best chef in the country award, Outstanding Chef, for Zahav, a modern Israeli restaurant that serves "authentic flavors of Israel's cultural heritage." Born in Israel, but raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Solomnov returned to Israel when he was 19 for a short time. He took a job in a bakery in Israel and his culinary career was born, although most of his training happened here in the United States. In 2008, he and Cook opened Zahav, the cuisine decided upon after Solomnov's brother was killed by snipers while in the Israeli Army. A visit to his brother's army base after his death was the deciding factor.
“Until I visited that place,” Solomnov told The New York Times in 2011, “I had no intention of cooking Israeli food. But, after my brother’s death, the path I was going to take became clear.”
If you really want to understand Solonmov and his Israeli cooking, check out the upcoming film, "In Search of Israeli Cuisine." It's currently showing around the country at various theaters, and it will opens in many more on May 5. Solomnov is the film's chef and guide.
Greg Vernick, Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic
New Jersey native Greg Vernick grew up around food, earned a degree in hospitality management, and studied at the Culinary Institute of America before working in some high-end kitchens like Jean Georges in New York City and Talula's Garden in Philadelphia. In 2012, he and his wife opened Vernick Food & Drink, and the city has been abuzz about the restaurant's food ever since.
In the five years since the restaurant opened, Vernick has been nominated in the Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic category (which is made up of D.C., Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia) three times, but this is his first win. His restaurant is well-known for good, simple food, especially the toast. You read that right, toast. There are eight different toppings, like pumpkin and brown butter or Bayonne ham and whipped brie, for the sourdough toast made from bread baked at the local Metropolitan Bakery. But, if Vernick only made good toast, he certainly wouldn't have won this award.
Diners rave about the rest of the American cuisine-focused menu (which means it has influences from all over the world.). Vernick uses regional ingredients, focuses on lots of vegetables, and has a wood-fired oven in which he roasts fish, chicken, pork and beef.
Stephen Starr, Outstanding Restaurateur
Stephen Starr, James Beard's 2017 Outstanding Restaurateur winner, has restaurants in five states, and the majority of them are in Philadelphia. (Photo: James Beard Foundation)
Since 2008, there hasn't been a year when Starr wasn't a finalist for the Outstanding Restaurateur, but this is first time he has won the award. Michael Klein at Philly.com believes he finally clicked with the hundreds of Beard Award judges because of his newest restaurant based in New York City, Le Coucou, which received the Best New Restaurant Award. He believes the French restaurant "helped to burnish his image beyond that of simply a creator of popular, moneymaking restaurants such as Buddakan, Morimoto, and Parc."
Starr's "popular, moneymaking restaurants" are popular in Philadelphia for a reason though. I've had excellent service in each one that I've dined in, and some of my favorite dishes in the city are from Starr's restaurants. The house-made ricotta served with toasted sourdough bread at Starre's English-themed Dandelion Pub has lured me into the the city just to savor it as I sat by the restaurant's fireplace on a chilly day. My son and I shared nachos at El Vez after his eighth-grade graduation, and we still talk about. (Next month, he'll graduate from high school.)
It's difficult not to be in close proximity to a Starr restaurant when you're in Philadelphia. He's been populating the city with great restaurants since 1995 when he opened The Continental Restaurant & Martini Bar, a still-popular spot in Old City, Philadelphia. Steak houses, BBQ joints and pizza places are all part of his restaurant empire in Philly, and he has branched out and opened spots in Atlantic City, New York City, Washington, D.C., and Florida.
Philadelphia has been due a big win like this for some time now. For the past several years, the city has consistently been named one of the best food cities in the U.S. by publications like The Washington Post, Travel + Leisure Magazine, and Zagat.
I imagine that the already-difficult-to-get-reservations at Zahav will be even more difficult to get now, and Vernick Food & Drink doesn't have an Open Table reservation available until May 21 at the moment. But, if you're in Philadelphia and you can't get a reservation at either of those, seek out a Starr restaurant or one of the hundreds of other excellent dining spots in the city. If you need a recommendation, shout out to me on Twitter (@rshreeves) and let me know what your'e looking for. I'll steer you in the right direction, although there isn't really a wrong direction in Philadelphia when it comes to great restaurants and great food.