Two Filipino Americans achieve historic wins at James Beard Awards Llera named Best Chef in California; Balingit wins Emerging Voice Award

Two Filipino Americans have made history, securing top honors at the prestigious James Beard Foundation Awards over the weekend in Chicago. Lord Maynard Llera of Kuya Lord was named Best Chef in California, while Abi Balingit’s debut cookbook, “Mayumu: Filipino American Desserts Remixed,” won the Emerging Voice award. These accolades not only highlight their exceptional talent and dedication but also showcase the rising prominence of Filipino cuisine in America.

Lord Maynard

Llera, the culinary visionary behind Kuya Lord, was named Best Chef in California by the James Beard Foundation Restaurant and Chef Awards. This award, one of the most coveted in the culinary industry, recognizes chefs who not only demonstrate exceptional culinary skills and leadership abilities but also contribute to creating a sustainable work culture and positively impact their broader community.

“Tonight, we raise a glass to the 2024 Restauran and Chef Award winners for their phenomenal achievements. These remarkable individuals embody the very essence of our Good Food for Good ethos, showcasing exceptional talent, unwavering dedication to their craft, and a steadfast commitment to elevating the industry,” said James Beard Foundation’s CEO, Clare Reichenbach. “With their passion, skill, and leadership, they are shaping our nation’s dining landscape and setting a new standard for culinary excellence.”

Llera’s win highlights his significant contributions to the culinary scene in California, where he has set high standards through his innovative approach and dedication to excellence. His work at Kuya Lord has been pivotal in showcasing Filipino cuisine’s rich and diverse flavors to a broader audience.

Abi Balingit

New York-based Abi Balingit and her book “Mayumu: Filipino American Desserts Remixed” received the Emerging Voice award, an accolade given to first-time published authors whose work has an immediate impact and lasting significance, expanding the reach of their subject matter. “Mayumu” has captivated readers with its unique take on Filipino American desserts, blending traditional flavors with modern twists.

The James Beard Foundation, which began honoring excellence in food media over 30 years ago, recognized Balingit’s book for its innovative and impactful contribution to the culinary literature. The Book Awards, first conferred by the Foundation in 1990, celebrate cookbooks and other nonfiction food or beverage-related books published in the U.S. in 2023.

“It’s interesting how it wasn’t always my intention to write a book, it wasn’t my intention to have this blow up the way that it did. But I’m really grateful for it,” Balingit told the Asian Journal in an earlier interview. “But it’s more like, I’m letting the tide take me and that’s how I want the future to be so I will never say no to anything.”

Balingit’s journey as an author began unexpectedly when she posted photos of her Lao Gan Ma spicy chili crisp cupcakes online. Her now-literary agent reached out and suggested she write a cookbook, a notion Balingit initially hadn’t considered.

This happened a few months into the pandemic, around September 2020, soon after she launched her baking blog, The Dusky Kitchen, from her Brooklyn apartment. Her blog, which became a platform to share her baking experiences and sell pasalubong treat boxes to support non-profit organizations, laid the foundation for her book. “Mayumu: Filipino Desserts Remixed” ended up as a blend of Filipino American dessert recipes and essays about her cultural experiences.

Balingit, who has been baking since she was 13, describes herself as a self-taught baker who learned through YouTube and guidance from her mother. She believes that her diverse influences, growing up in the Bay Area and living in New York, have enriched her culinary perspective. Her book aims to provide options for home bakers, blending traditional Filipino flavors with new, inventive twists. She emphasized respecting the origins of these flavors while exploring new combinations.

Her book, named to honor her parents and their Kapampangan heritage, reflects her personal journey and her dedication to baking as a form of connection and coping during challenging times. Balingit’s parents instilled in her the importance of kindness and doing good for others, values she carries into her baking and writing.

The Restaurant and Chef Awards, established in 1990 with the first ceremony taking place in 1991, are one of five separate recognition programs by the James Beard Foundation. These awards celebrate excellence across a range of dining experiences, from fine-dining establishments to casual gems, and from emerging talents to established luminaries, all while supporting and encouraging a more sustainable industry.

Both Llera and Balingit’s achievements reinforce the growing influence and recognition of Filipino cuisine and culture in the United States. Their awards not only highlight their talents and contributions but also bring pride to the Filipino American community, inspiring future generations of chefs and authors.

Growing list

Llera and Balingit join a distinguished group of Filipino and Filipino-American James Beard Award winners.

In 2020, the James Beard Foundation honored Oriental Mart, a beloved Filipino restaurant located inside Pike Place Market in Seattle, with the prestigious “America’s Classics” award. This award recognizes locally-owned restaurants with a “timeless appeal” that are cherished regionally for their quality food reflecting the character of their community. Established in 1971 by Mila Apostol, an immigrant from the Philippines, Oriental Mart initially began as a grocery store. In 1987, Apostol’s daughter, Leila Rosas, expanded the business by opening an adjacent lunch counter, which has since become a staple for delicious Filipino classics in Seattle.

Tom Cunanan won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic in 2019 for his work at the now-closed Bad Saint restaurant in Washington D.C. Miguel de Leon, a Filipino American sommelier and writer based in New York City, won the 2022 James Beard Foundation Journalism Award for his long-form essay “It’s Time to Decolonize Wine,” which explored his experiences as a person of color in the wine industry.

Last year, Filipino-French chef and content creator Erwan Heussaff won the James Beard Award in the Social Media Account category for his Instagram account @erwan. Heussaff is the founder of The Fat Kid Inside Studios, which runs the YouTube channel FEATR, focusing on Filipino cuisine and culture.

Also in 2023, Margarita Manzke was named Outstanding Pastry Chef or Baker for her work at Republique in Los Angeles, after being nominated for eight years. Additionally, Marilou Ranta, chef/owner of The Quarry in Maine, won the Outstanding Hospitality category, recognizing her excellence in both food and customer service.

The husband-and-wife duo Tim Flores and Genie Kwon, owners and chefs of Kasama in Chicago, won the Best Chef: Great Lakes category for 2023. Kasama made history in April 2020 by becoming the first-ever Filipino restaurant to receive a coveted Michelin star.

These recognitions reflect the growing influence and recognition of Filipino cuisine in the American culinary scene, celebrating the rich heritage and innovative contributions of Filipino and Filipino-American chefs, authors, and content creators.

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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