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Alaska’s culinary scene is in the spotlight for 2024 as three talented chefs, a distillery in Juneau, a cozy cafe in Homer, and a prominent restaurateur in Anchorage receive well-deserved recognition as semifinalists for the prestigious James Beard Awards.
The James Beard Foundation, an esteemed authority in the culinary and hospitality industry, unveiled its 2024 Restaurant and Chef Award semifinalists on Wednesday, January 24th. Since its establishment in 1990, the awards have aimed to celebrate exceptional talent and accomplishments in various facets of the food world, encompassing culinary arts, hospitality, and media.
In the category of Best Chef: Northwest and Pacific, three Alaska chefs stand out as semifinalists: Beau Schooler, renowned for his culinary expertise at Juneau’s In Bocca Al Lupo, returns after being a finalist in 2023. Joining him are Anchorage-based chefs Nathan Bentley of Altura Bistro (another repeat nominee) and Michael Dodge of Whisky & Ramen.
“It feels amazing. It really does,” Bentley said. “Especially two years in a row. [It] just shows that we really, really take our craft seriously here and we really appreciate bringing in high-quality ingredients, making everything from scratch and doing it justice.”
Born and raised in Anchorage, Bentley went through the UAA culinary program to get his start: “We always feel being a local, you know, small-town person from Alaska, we kind of seem like we get overlooked sometimes — and it just shows that we don’t,” Bentley said.
Laile Fairbairn, the force behind Locally Grown Restaurants has been recognized as a semifinalist in the Outstanding Restaurateur category. 2024 also marks Fairbairn’s second consecutive year as a semifinalist, and she echoes the sentiment.
“Alaska in general is a lot more cosmopolitan from the aspect of we like quality,” said Fairbairn, Managing Member for Snow City Cafe, South Restaurant + Coffeehouse, Crush Wine Bistro & Cellar, and Spenard Roadhouse. “And we’ve seen other places and we’ve chosen to live here because of how beautiful it is.”
Adding to Alaska’s culinary accolades, La Baleine Café, nestled on the Homer Spit, has been acknowledged as a semifinalist in the Outstanding Hospitality category. (It’s also on my list for where to eat in Homer, even though I’m no James Beard…)
In the beverage realm, Juneau’s Amalga Distillery, specializing in the craft of gin and whiskey, stands out as a semifinalist in the Outstanding Bar category; it too is on my list of the best restaurants and bars in Juneau.
For Renee Trafton, chef and owner of Beak Restaurant in Sitka, her nomination for Best Chef last year (2023) was a career goal. (Beak is my “best in show” restaurant in Sitka!)
“Feels kind of unreal. But I’m, like, extremely happy,” Trafton said, who also acknowledges that Alaska gives chefs and restaurants an advantage: “The fish here is the best in the world,” Trafton said. “I’m really passionate about cooking fish and I over the years, I’ve been in business since 2017, I’ve like cultivated relationships with fishermen. And that’s really fantastic. Because I can get, like the highest quality fish with not too much difficulty.”
The 2024 Restaurant and Chef Awards feature a total of 22 categories, encompassing bakeries, wine, and beverage service, showcasing the diverse talent within the industry. The next phase of the awards process – Nominee announcements – will take place on April 3rd, with the awards ceremony scheduled for April 10th.