Dominic Massa / Eyewitness News
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With New Orleans chefs making up four of the five finalists, it was a good bet that one would bring home a James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef: South. To the delight of local foodies, Tory McPhail of Commander's Palace will.
On Monday evening in New York, McPhail was announced as the winner of the Beard award in the regional category. Commander’s is a multiple Beard award winner, but this is the first win for McPhail, executive chef at the legendary Garden District restaurant.
“Ladies, this one’s for you,” McPhail said triumphantly as he recognized members of the Brennan family in the audience – Ti Martin and Dottie and Lally Brennan, who along with restaurant matriarch Ella Brennan are known nationwide for Commander’s Palace. Ella Brennan could not attend Monday's ceremony, McPhail said, but has been recognized in the past with a Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award.
“You see it’s not just what’s happening in the kitchen, but it’s the ability to connect with people, to connect with your staff, your guests and create dining memories that people will cherish and enjoy for a lifetime,” he said of the lessons the Brennan family has taught him.
The Beard awards, considered the Oscars of the food world, were presented in a ceremony at Lincoln Center featuring well-known award presenters Mario Batali and Jacques Pepin among other food and wine notables.
The three other New Orleans nominees in the Best Chef: South category were: Justin Devillier, La Petite Grocery; Alon Shaya, Domenica; and Sue Zemanick, Gautreau’s. There was one non-New Orleanian in the category: Jeff McInnis of Miami Beach’s Yardbird Southern Table & Bar.
Devillier, McPhail and Shaya were all finalists in the Best Chef: South category last year. The category is open to chefs in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Arkansas and Puerto Rico.
McPhail congratulated the other New Orleans nominees in his acceptance speech.
“We’re all the best of friends but certainly southern chefs are competitive and we take our food extremely seriously,” he said. McPhail acknowledged as his mentors, in addition to the Brennan's, the late Jamie Shannon, a former Commander’s chef and Beard winner, as well as former Commander’s kitchen stars Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme. McPhail took over the Commander’s kitchen in 2002.
Fittingly, just before McPhail was presented with his award, Lagasse was presented the James Beard Foundation’s Humanitarian of the Year award.
Lagasse, who maintains his corporate home base in New Orleans and operates three of his 10 restaurants in the city, including his flagship Emeril’s, was honored for the work of his Emeril Lagasse Foundation.
“For 10 years, over 10 years now, we’ve just been trying to make a difference with kids. Four culinary learning centers, 400,000 meals that we’ve provided for summer meals in New Orleans, a performing arts center on the Gulf Coast,” Lagasse explained during his acceptance speech, also thanking donors to his foundation and his staff.
“None of this could be possible without my family,” he added, thanking his wife and children, and joking about his mother, Hilda, who called him backstage before the presentation, oblivious to her son’s honor.
Emeril’s non-profit has presented more than $5 million in grants to culinary arts programs and educational efforts helping disadvantaged young people in cities across the country, including New Orleans. Programs at NOCCA, Café Reconcile, the Edible Schoolyard and St. Michael’s Special School help carry out the mission of the foundation.
“The world cannot evolve if one does not give back,” Emeril said in a video before his award was presented. “When I started the foundation, the mission was to mentor and inspire youths to move forward. The knowledge that I have, I want to share that.”
“At the end of the day, he’s always said he wants to just make the next day better than the one before,” added Kristin Shannon, executive director of the Emeril Lagasse Foundation, who also appeared in the award video.
Among other New Orleans nominees, Chef John Besh’s Restaurant August was also nominated for a James Beard Outstanding Restaurant award in tonight’s ceremony, but lost out to Blue Hill of New York City.