On May 4, the James Beard Foundation announced the finalists for its media, journalism, design, and restaurant and chef awards, on the very day that the nonprofit organization had planned to hold its 30th annual awards gala in Chicago. Of course, the coronavirus pandemic shut down that gala, as it has shuttered so many of the restaurants, bars, breweries, and other culinary establishments that would have been honored there. 

After releasing the names of the semi finalists on February 26—Colorado scored 18 nominations honoring restaurants and chefs from Grand Junction to Aurora—the awards process stalled, just as businesses across the country began closing. Instead of announcing the finalists on March 25 and hosting the gala on May 4, the national nonprofit began to focus on aid and advocacy. 

As Mitchel Davis, the Beard Foundation’s chief strategy officer, wrote in a blog post on May 1, “We became a founding partner of the Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC), a newly formed lobby group intended to represent the unique needs of independent restaurants in the politics of Washington. We established the James Beard Foundation Food and Beverage Industry Relief Fund to make $15,000 emergency grants to restaurants, and $4 million in grants has been distributed to date. We also started a robust program of online education and events to bring experts, advice, and a sense of collective community to bear on the unprecedented challenges facing the restaurant industry.” 

The Beard Foundation also wanted to boost morale and offer a “glimmer of hope” to the country’s beleaguered hospitality community, and so, the finalists were announced on May 4 via Twitter. 

(From left) Carrie Baird (Bar Dough), Dana Rodriguez (Super Mega Bien), and Caroline Glover (Annette). Photo by Lucy Beaugard, courtesy of Colorado Traveler

Colorado is home to six nominees (and El Taco de Mexico, winner of an America’s Classics Award this year): Leopold Bros for Outstanding Wine, Beer, or Spirits Producer; Frasca Food and Wine for Outstanding Restaurant; and four contenders for the Best Chef: Mountain category, including Carrie Baird for Bar Dough, Caroline Glover for Annette, Dana Rodriguez for Super Mega Bien, and Kelly Whitaker for the Wolf’s Tailor.

Glover was participating on a Zoom panel for the Colorado Restaurant Association when she heard the news. “My phone started blowing up,” she says. “I feel elated. Given the circumstances, this is an odd time, but the crew we have at Annette right now is the same team that’s been with me since day one, so it feels right.” Glover planned to drink some wine with her husband (and Annette teammate) Nelson, and then, on Wednesday, when Annette reopens for the week, celebrate with the staff there and anyone getting takeout. “I anticipate regulars coming through the drive through,” Glover says, “so it’ll be different, but still the same sentiment.”

Todd Leopold, who owns Leopold Bros. with his brother, Scott, was making hand sanitizer and steeping grain for the brand’s new malthouse when the news broke. “It’s remarkable,” he says, “Awards are nice but we feel that this honor is all about Colorado. The notion has been that world-class things are made elsewhere, but everyone in the country should know what Bobby Stuckey and Jennifer Jasinski (Best Chef: Southwest in 2014 for Rioja) are doing. We’ve got one heck of a community here and it’s fun to be a part of it.” The only downside? Leopold wishes that it wasn’t just his and his brother’s names on the nomination. “I wish the award was for the Leopold Bros distillery,” he says. “This is an award for all of us.” 

The feeling is mutual for Kelly Whitaker, a finalist for the Wolf’s Tailor in Sunnyside (Whitaker also owns Basta and Dry Storage in Boulder, and Brutø in downtown Denver). “It feels good,” he says, “but the biggest standout to me is that there are four female chef finalists in the Mountain region that I know, that I’ve collaborated with. They’re all amazing. And I am glad that the Beard Foundation is celebrating restaurants that are taking a chance by doing something different.” Whitaker was in Boulder picking up vegetables from chef-farmer Eric Skokan at Black Cat Farm when he received the news of his nomination (check out the menu for this week’s Basta x Bramble & Hare pop up here). “I was sitting on the back of our car waiting for Eric when I heard,” Whitaker says. The timing couldn’t have been any better, with the Wolf’s Tailor reopening for takeout and delivery just last week. Entering week two with this nomination, it’s so great.”

Master Sommelier and Frasca Food and Wine co-owner Bobby Stuckey had just arrived home from a day stacked with IRC calls, when he looked at Twitter and saw his restaurant’s name listed for one of the most prestigious of the Beard Foundation’s coveted awards. “I think it’s a real positive that they made the announcement,” Stuckey says. “The IRC couldn’t have been done without the James Beard Foundation; they’ve given so much support and guidance. They’re on every one of those advocacy calls, trying to save 600,000 restaurants. This bit of positivity is going to go a long way.” Stuckey is “humbled and honored” that Frasca is a finalist in the Outstanding Restaurant category, and feels that it would be a boon for Colorado should it take home the medal. (The restaurant won last year’s Outstanding Service award, and has also taken home medals for Outstanding Wine Program in 2013 and Best Chef: Southwest in 2008 for chef-owner Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson.) As far as celebrating, Stuckey anticipates paying out a big rain check to the Frasca team when they reopen the restaurant. “I know they’re going to expect me to open some great Champagne when we’re all together again,” he says.

Carrie Baird, nominated for her leadership at Bar Dough (and who now co-owns Rose’s Classic Americana at Rosetta Hall in Boulder) was filming a video with her partner, Blake Edmunds, at Morin when she received an alert from Twitter. “I was so surprised!” Baird says. “I’m so proud of my team at Bar Dough and what we did together. An award like this isn’t just about me—it’s about my sous chef and line cooks and celebrating with them.” Baird and Edmunds leaned into the good news of the day by getting takeout sushi from Mizu Izakaya (which Baird says was very good.)

For first-time Best Chef: Mountain finalist Dana Rodriguez (who was also a semifinalist in the regional chef category in 2015, 2016, and 2018 for Work & Class), making the shortlist feels fortuitous. Burglars recently broke windows at Super Mega Bien in RiNo, and then, yesterday morning, Rodriguez found graffiti on other windows; she was fed up and angry and needed a break. She spontaneously booked a weekend away in Taos, quickly getting in the car and setting off. “Just as I jumped in the car, I started getting texts,” she says. “I didn’t know what they were talking about! But it’s perfect. Even if I don’t win, this trip is my trophy. You never know what your life will end up being. Just make each day happy and exciting for yourself. This award is a sign not to give up, to push ahead. It’s win-win for our customers, our staff, and our community.”

For now, the Beard Foundation is planning to reveal the Award winners on September 25 in Chicago, although there’s no final word on whether an in-person gala will take place or if the celebration will be partly or entirely virtual.

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.