At 4 p.m. on Monday, May 7, there were a lot of nervous Coloradans in Chicago. It was a big day: The James Beard Foundation Awards gala was beginning in a couple of hours, and three Centennial State restaurants and a Denver design firm were contenders—Frasca Food and Wine was up for Outstanding Restaurant for the third time; Alex Seidel (Mercantile Dining & Provision, Fruition, Fruition Farms CreameryFüdmill), was nominated for Best Chef: Southwest for the sixth time; and the Little Nell was in the running for the third time for Outstanding Wine Program. Denver architecture and design firm, Shears Adkins Rockmore Architects, also earned a nod for their work at the Preacher’s Son in Bentonville, Arkansas.

To add even more Centennial State flair to the day, Brother Luck, the recent Top Chef contestant and chef/owner of Four by Brother Luck in Colorado Springs, was in town, getting ready to feed the hungry crowd after the awards ceremony. And the RiNo Yacht Club’s McLain Hedges and Mary Allison Wright were there, too, hunting for a Jägermeister shot machine for a cocktail throwdown later that night.

The only person missing was Matthew Vawter, Mercantile’s co-owner and chef de cuisine. Vawter was actually in Chicago with Seidel and his wife, Melissa, their business partner, Dan Skvarca, and wine director Patrick Houghton just that morning. But Vawter returned home in a hurry after a long night worrying that his wife, Christy, would go into labor without him. Vawter had to call it: Stay in Chicago and hope that the baby would delay his entrance into the world, or catch a 6 a.m. flight to Denver and miss what, he hoped, would be a night of celebration. Vawter chose to fly, which turned out to be the right choice—his wife was already at the hospital when he landed in Denver at 8 a.m. and their son was born around noon.

Back in Chicago, the Little Nell crew, which totaled almost 30, from wine director Carlton McCoy to executive chef Matt Zubrod, as well as sommeliers, directors, managers, servers, and their plus ones, were all getting dressed before heading to the ceremony. The Seidels, Skvarca, and Houghton were calming their pre-gala nerves with drinks at a pre-party, and the Frasca team—Bobby and Danette Stuckey, Peter and Madeline Hoglund, Lachlan and Cristin Patterson—were enjoying a few beers at Rossi’s, the dive bar where they’ve pre-gamed for the Beard Awards gala for the past three years.

And then, it was time to go. Excited and jittery, they all walked the red carpet, found their seats in the packed and buzzing Lyric Opera House, and settled in for a three and a half hour show. The inimitable Carla Hall was a lively, charming host; not many could recover as gracefully as she from an on-stage wipeout so sudden and violent that both of her shoes flew off! It was a tense moment, but Hall, and the show, went on with humor and moxie.

The ceremony may have been long, but the pacing was tight and there were several moments of true inspiration. Savvy attendees passed flasks and shared nips as the lifetime achievement award went to indomitable cookbook author Paula Wolfert, who delivered a funny speech detailing her work with James Beard himself and her life as a beatnik in Morocco. José Andrés, winner of the year’s humanitarian award, moved the audience with an impassioned, eloquent call to action to change our food system, improve our response to global crises, and fight against the inequities in the restaurant industry. (Should he ever run, Andrés has my vote for president.)

Unfortunately, there was only one Colorado winner. But when Alex Seidel was named Best Chef: Southwest, raucous cheers erupted like fireworks from every corner of the room. Seidel, as always, was humble, grateful, and warm as he thanked Melissa, his teams, and Vawter, who was in the right place but sorely missed.

The remainder of the evening included dancing at Girl and the Goat; a Casablanca movie short and larger-than-life poster with Seidel’s visage replacing that of Humphrey Bogart; drinks with Hedges and Wright; and, finally, a 3 a.m. street snack of pork chop sandwiches and french fries at Maxwell Street Depot.

Throughout, Seidel remained incredulous about his big win. “It won’t feel real until we get back to our teams [at Mercantile and Fruition],” Seidel said. He couldn’t wait to share in the celebratory toasts the teams raised to Seidel and Vawter both—they sent pictures and stories of a night of electric service at both restaurants—and to give Vawter a belated congratulatory hug.

Denise Mickelsen
Denise Mickelsen
Denise Mickelsen is 5280’s former food editor. She oversaw all of 5280’s food-related coverage from October 2016 to March 2021.