NEW ORLEANS - A major national honor Monday for one of the city’s hottest restaurants, Peche Seafood Grill, as it earned the James Beard Award for best new restaurant in the country, and its chef and co-owner, Ryan Prewitt, tied with local star Sue Zemanick for the award for best southern chef.
The James Beard Foundation awards, considered the food world’s Oscars, were presented at a ceremony in New York. New Orleans earned major attention at the ceremony, with the awards for Peche, Prewitt and Zemanick, as well as a lifetime achievement award for superstar chef John Besh and an “America’s Classic” honor for Hansen’s Sno-Bliz.
Peche, opened last April by Cochon and Herbsaint owner and chef Donald Link and partners Ryan Prewitt and Stephen Stryjewski, beat out restaurants in New York and San Francisco for the honor.
Link spoke at the ceremony Monday night, thanking his staff and partners for their contributions and remembering the early days of creating the new restaurant, known for its unique seafood grilling techniques, adapted from culinary traditions observed by the team during visits to Spain, Uruguay and elsewhere.
“We had a great time, we still have a great time and I think we’ve built a great, fun new addition to New Orleans,” Link said.
Earlier in the evening, Prewitt and Zemanick accepted their awards for Best Chef: South.
Zemanick, a Pennsylvania native who has been executive chef at Gautreau’s since 2005, has been nominated four times before for a James Beard Rising Star award. In accepting the award Monday, she thanked her staff at Gautreau’s and Ivy, as well as the owners of both restaurants, Patrick and Rebecca Singley, who “gave a young girl 10 years ago a chance to become the chef of an established, amazing restaurant,” she said.
A “Top Chef” TV star and recipient of many other national honors, Zemanick was also previously nominated for the James Beard best southern chef award. In addition to Gautreau’s, Zemanick recently added chef’s duties at Ivy to her profile. It’s the new, small plate eatery and lounge on Magazine Street owned by the Singleys.
Appearing on stage with Zemanick, Prewitt jokingly thanked Sue “for going first” with her speech, then thanked his business partners and “mentors,” Link and Stryjewski.
“This never would have been possible without them,” Prewitt said.
Prewitt moved to New Orleans to begin his career under the tutelage of Link at his restaurant Herbsaint on St. Charles Avenue. Prewitt became chef de cuisine there in 2009 then, as Link’s restaurant empire expanded with Cochon and Butcher, Prewitt was named to oversee culinary operations for Link Restaurant Group as the company’s executive chef. He, Link and Strjewski opened Peche on Magazine Street last April. Link is a previous Beard award winner. He earned the Best Chef: South award in 2007, the same year Cochon was nominated for Best New Restaurant. Link was also honored with an award in 2012 for his first cookbook, “Real Cajun: Rustic Home Cooking from Donald Link’s Louisiana.”
The southern chef category covers nominees from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Puerto Rico.
In addition to Prewitt and Zemanick, the other local nominees for Best Chef: South were Justin Devillier of La Petite Grocery and Alon Shaya of Domenica. A fifth nominee was from Oxford, Mississippi. Chef Tory McPhail of Commander’s Palace won the award last year.
Other local Beard award honorees this year included Chef John Besh, who was inducted into James Beard’s Who’s Who of Food and Beverage, the organization’s version of a lifetime achievement award. The awards presentation in particular singled out Besh, owner of Restaurant August and nine other restaurants, for the work of his non-profit foundation.
“When Hurricane Katrina devastated his hometown, John Besh became a leader in rebuilding the community…The John Besh Foundation is preserving New Orleans’ culinary history,” said the foundation in its awards presentation. It honored Besh for his cookbooks and television work, but also his foundation’s scholarship programs for aspiring young chefs and food professionals and his grant programs for local farmers.
An emotional honor also came Monday night for Hansen’s Sno-Bliz, the Uptown snowball landmark which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. Hansen’s was named one of the James Beard Foundation’s America’s Classics. The honor is given to local restaurants, often family-owned, that are treasured for their quality food, local character, and lasting appeal.
Ashley Hansen, granddaughter of the business’ founders – Ernest and Mary Hansen - and current owner of the business, accepted the award with an emotional speech.
“This is a family business, but it’s also a family heirloom,” Ashley Hansen said in the video preceding her award presentation. “For my grandparents, this was not just a snowball stand but a love story,” she said. “I am guardian of their tradition, I get to carry on their memory and I get to have a snowball every summer.”
Hansen’s grandparents opened the stand at Tchoupitoulas and Bordeaux in 1939, five years after Mr. Hansen applied for a U.S. patent for his electric ice-shaving machine, one of the first and best of its kind. His wife, Mary, made all of the snowball syrups from scratch and for more than 65 years, her smiling face served customers as they made their way to the front of the often long line. The Hansens died just a few months after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“My grandfather once said that the most important thing in life, and he was 94 when he said this, was gratitude,” she said in her speech, adding that her grandfather had reflected to her that he had often worried that he had not expressed enough gratitude to his in-laws. She said she never forgot that and works to show her gratitude for her grandparents by keeping their memory, and their beloved business, alive.
“Now as Ernest once did, I wonder, did I show enough gratitude? Was it enough? So I work every day at the stand, I try to thank them posthumously, by… exemplifying their motto: there are no shortcuts to quality,” Ashley Hansen said.