13 Fil-Am chefs named James Beard Awards semifinalists

Nikko Cagalanan of Kultura (Charleston) Photo from Instagram/@nikko_cagalanan | Aaron Verzosa of Archipelago (Seattle)
Photo from Archipelago Seattle

Several Filipino American chefs are in the running for the 2024 James Beard Awards as the James Beard Foundation announced its Restaurant and Chef Awards semifinalists on Thursday, Jan. 25.

The James Beard Awards are among the nation’s most prestigious culinary honors, recognizing the outstanding and talented leaders making their mark on American food. The awards celebrate excellence across a range of experiences, from fine-dining establishments to casual gems, and emerging talents to established luminaries.

Nikko Cagalanan of Kultura in Charleston is in the running for the Emerging Chef Award, given to “a chef who displays exceptional talent, character, and leadership ability, and who is likely to make a significant impact in years to come while contributing positively to their broader community.”

Chef Nikko moved to the United States from the Philippines in 2011 and worked as a nurse. Driven by his passion for Filipino cuisine, he decided to transition to a career in cooking. In 2018, Chef Nikko made the move to Charleston, taking significant steps in his culinary path that in early 2019, he founded Mansueta’s Filipino Food to share his love for Filipino cuisine with the community.

Cagalanan achieved recognition as the Best Filipino Restaurant in South Carolina by Food & Wine magazine, coupled with the prestigious title of Chopped Champion in November. Last year, he opened Kultura, a personal space where he can welcome guests and collaborate with chefs from diverse backgrounds, allowing them to showcase their own cultures through the art of food.

Aaron Verzosa, co-owner and chef of Seattle restaurant Archipelago, is one of the “Outstanding Chef” nominees. Last year, Verzosa, was a semifinalist for Best Chef: Northwest and Pacific.

Lordfer Lalicon and Jamilyn Bailey of Kaya (Orlando)
Photo from Instagram/@chef.lordfer.lalicon

Kaya, a contemporary Filipino restaurant situated in Orlando, is up for the Best New Restaurant Award. This accolade is dedicated to recognizing recently opened restaurants that showcase outstanding excellence in cuisine and hold the promise of making a significant impact in the years to come. Kaya is run by Chef Lordfer Lalicon and Jamilyn Bailey, who expressed their profound gratitude for the nod on their Instagram account, stating, “What an incredible honor and testament to the hard work and love of the village that lifts us. We are humbled to represent our culture and our city in this special way.”

Kimmie Mcintosh of Milkfish Bakeshop (Las Vegas)
Photo from Instagram/@milkfish.bakeshop

Kimmie and Josh Mcintosh of Milkfish Bakeshop in Las Vegas are in the Outstanding Pastry Chef or Baker category. The couple started Milkfish as a pop-up bakeshop to uplift Filipino culture through heritage, technique, and ingredients. Among their offerings are Ube Halaya Babka, Cashew Coco Jam Sticky Buns, Pandan Tres Leches Cake, and Carioca Skewers.

Chefs Melissa Miranda of Musang (Seattle) Photo from Instagram/@meltronica

Chefs Melissa Miranda of Musang (Seattle) and Sheldon Simeon of Tiffany’s (Wailuku) got another nod for the Best Chef: Northwest and Pacific along with Lord Maynard Llera of Kuya Lord (Los Angeles) and Tara Monsod of Animae (San Diego) for Best Chef: California.

Sheldon Simeon of Tiffany’s (Wailuku) Photo from Instagram/@chefwonder

“I am floored and humbled to be a semifinalist. I’m proud of the work my team has done and grateful for the support from the community. To be able to create the food I want and push the culture forward means the world to me,” Monsod said. “The San Diego food scene deserves to be recognized and I’m proud to represent.”

Tara Monsod of Animae (San Diego) Photo by Matt Furman

As a BIPOC LGBTQ chef in her first Executive Chef role, Tara Monsod’s emphasis on creating a welcoming and inclusive environment extends into every facet of operating Animae. In addition to fostering a diverse team which reflects her drive for a more inclusive industry, Chef Tara has proven herself as an outstanding leader in San Diego’s booming culinary scene by producing a menu filled with complex and delightful dishes that highlight her identity as a first-generation Filipino American.

Lord Maynard Llera of Kuya Lord (Los Angeles) Photo from Instagram/@cheflordmaynard

Offering guests a journey into her upbringing, Monsod’s food displays a heightened sense of refinement, showcasing expertly prepared dishes from across Asia. Tara is proud to lead a restaurant that serves a community that represents the second-largest Filipino American population of any county in the nation—for many Filipino families, Animae is the first fine dining establishment where they have felt truly at home.

Chris Mauricio of Harana Market (Accord) Photo from Instagram/@haranamarket

Chris Mauricio of Harana Market (Accord) is a semifinalist for Best Chef: New York State while Erik Bentz and Elaine Uykimpang Bentz of Cafe Mochiko (Cincinnati) and Joe Fontelera of Boonie’s Filipino Restaurant (Chicago) are duking it out for Best Chef: Great Lakes. The husband-and-wife team of Mark and Jennifer Berdin of Kadence (Orlando) are up for Best Chef: South.

Joe Fontelera of Boonie’s Filipino Restaurant (Chicago) Photo from Instagram/@joefontelera

These chefs were recognized for setting high standards in their culinary skills and leadership abilities and are making efforts to help create a sustainable work culture in their respective regions while contributing positively to their broader community.

Harana Market, formerly of Woodstock recently moved to its bigger location in Accord. Their lease in Woodstock ended and since they have been growing since they opened, Chris and Eva decided to expand. They have since become the go-to Filipino spot in the Hudson Valley area.

The announcement was a big surprise that they did not expect, almost three years to the day of their first service, according to the Instagram post of Harana Market.

“Regardless of what happens in the next round, this is a significant win for Filipino food and culture. It’s also a win for generations of our family. As you probably know by now, the food Chris makes is as they learned it from their Grandma who learned it from her ancestors and it’s how we eat it around our table if you were to ever come visit our home. That Chris can make it to this world-renowned list without compromising or conforming, and remaining true to their food, flavors, and culture is outstanding,” the post further said.

This year’s winners will be celebrated at the James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards ceremony on June 10 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

The James Beard Awards, considered to be among the nation’s most prestigious honors, recognize exceptional talent in the culinary and food media industries, as well as a demonstrated commitment to racial and gender equity, community, sustainability, and a culture where all can thrive.

Founded more than 30 years ago, the James Beard Foundation “celebrates and supports the people behind America’s food culture, while pushing for new standards in the restaurant industry to create a future where all have the opportunity to thrive,” according to its announcement.


Momar G. Visaya

Momar G. Visaya is the Executive Editor of the Asian Journal. You can reach him at [email protected].

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