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16 James Beard Award semifinalists hail from Washington state

Genuine soba noodles are difficult to find in the U.S.
Genuine soba noodles are difficult to find in the U.S.

Eleven chefs, four restaurants and one baker from Washington state are among the semifinalists for the James Beard Foundation Awards. The prestigious food awards returns after a two-year pause.

Its 2020 ceremony was canceled after a handful of finalists withdrew their names due to "personal reasons." Some of these chefs had been accused of bad behavior while others withdrew as a way to protest the awards.

Additionally, reporting from The New York Times revealed that of the 23 categories' winners, none were Black. Since then, the organization has made changes to its process, including how it handles nominees accused of misconduct and racially diversifying its committee and judges.

This year's award semifinalists indicate early progress in its efforts to diversify the program. Two of the names that made the list from Washington state are Melissa Miranda, the chef/owner behind Musang, and Kristi Brown, the chef/owner of Communion. Both restaurants opened during the pandemic, and despite the challenges that came with it, became extremely popular and won much praise from the local food scene.

Musang was named Seattle Met's Restaurant of the Year in 2020, and Communion won the honor in 2021.

Musang has made its mark by taking traditional Filipino food and elevating it in a way that utilizes local fresh ingredients while keeping true to its origins. Miranda grew up in the Beacon Hill neighborhood where her restaurant now sits. After spending time cooking professionally in Italy and then New York, she eventually came back to her roots in Seattle to cook the Filipino food she grew up with.

Dishes like Musang's short rib kare kare, fried chicken and lumpia all exemplify Miranda's ability to pay homage to dishes she grew up with while putting her own spin on them. She is a contender in the Best Chef category.

Nearby, in Seattle’s Central District, Kristi Brown was named as a contender for Emerging Chef. Her restaurant, Communion, serves up her take on soul food. When she opened the restaurant, it marked yet another return of a Black-owned business to the historically Black neighborhood. Communion's menu offers diners more traditional soul food items like grits, mac and cheese, and bone stew but also spins on classics like the po'boy. Brown moved to Renton as a teenager and was heavily influenced by the Asian food around her. This is apparent in her take on the po'boy, which she calls a po'mi, combining the Southern sandwich with the Vietnamese banh mi.

Other notable names that made the list include Rachel Yang of Joule and her partner Seif Chirchi in the Outstanding Chef category. This marks the ninth time Yang has been named as a James Beard semifinalist.

Pamela Vuong of The Flour Box in Seattle's Hillman City neighborhood is a semifinalist for Outstanding Baker, and Filipino chef Aaron Verzosa of Archipelago also made the list for Best Chef: Northwest & Pacific.

The three Washington state semifinalists not from the Seattle area were Matia Kitchen & Bar on Orcas Island (Best New Restaurant) and Nick Coffey of Ursa Minor on Lopez Island and Chad White of Zona Blanca in Spokane, who are both nominated in the Best Chef: Northwest & Pacific category.

Finalists will be announced in March, and the awards ceremony is set to take place in June.

Grace Madigan covers arts and culture with a focus on how people express themselves and connect to their communities through art, music, media, food, and sport.