RI Chefs Jennings, Speidel, Bolin in Running for James Beard Awards

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


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For the first time, three Rhode Island chefs have made it to the semifinals of the prestigious James Beard Foundation awards: Farmstead's Matt Jennings and Persimmon's Champe Speidel are up for best chef in the highly competitive Northeast region, and Nemo Bolin's restaurant Cook & Brown Public House is up for best restaurant. GoLocalProv caught up with the trio to check in how they're feelng in the aftermath of what is the culinary equivalent of an early morning Oscar nomination phone call...

Congratulations on this big shout-out from the prestigious JBF. How'd you first get the news you'd made the semifinals?

Jennings: Twitter. No, seriously. I woke up to voicemails, direct messages, bleeps and bings.

Speidel: My wife, Lisa, saw it online and called me. I was already at work at our butcher shop, Persimmon Provisions, when the list was released. It was a wonderful surprise, and I was thrilled that it was she who broke the news to me.

Bolin: Actually, I had no idea that we were even in the running for a nomination and I certainly had no idea what day the nominations came out.  I was up early with my son and my Blackberry kept vibrating.  At first I thought maybe something had happened at the restaurant because I don't usually get a lot of calls or emails at 8 in the morning.  It turned out to be people sending congratulations through Twitter. I had to go online to the JBA website just to make sure it was real.

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Matt and Champe: What has distinguished your work as a chef in the past year to jump into this esteemed company?

Speidel: This honor was a surprise to all of us, but I guess you hope, at the most basic of levels, it's hard work that pays off. There's an old cliche in the restaurant industry that you're only as good as your last meal. Our team lives by this mantra at Persimmon -- for the last five years, we have worked to constantly re-think, tweak and better what we do. Perfection is a wonderful goal because it's not attainable; it's all about striving to be the best you can be.

Jennings:  I think the most important aspect of our restaurant is that we don't cut corners. We are dedicated to doing things right and I'm glad it shows. Our (Kate and my) food ethos is a simple one. The food we create can only be as good as the ingredients we start with. That means diligent sourcing, research on the products we use - an academia really. There's not one item on any plate that goes out of my kitchen, that we don't
know where it comes from, or who it is produced, grown or raised by. We also really enjoy taking ingredient production into our own hands. Charcuterie, pickles, butter, cheese, vinegars, pastas, even flours- these are all things we make in house. We're geeks. We are academic about the food we create. That's important.

Nemo:  What do you think set Cook & Brown apart this year?

It's really hard to say.  I think the fact that we change our menu all the time is somewhat different. The type of beverage program that we have, for the size of our restaurant, is fairly unique. A lot of it has to do with our staff and the effort that they put in every day.  Beyond the food and drinks, we try our best to make people feel very comfortable when they come in, whether it's for a quick drink or for a long meal with friends.  And the fact that we're really a family restaurant, a mom and pop place, at heart.  Also, we're trying to improve every day.  We know that the restaurant isn't perfect, but we go in each day trying to get better at what we do and I think that shows.

Matt and Champe, that's a hot list of chefs you're competing with... know any of these folks? Who's your favorite chef on the list?

Jennings: I know a lot of them. It's incredible company to be in - truly. Evan Mallett, Tim Cushman, Krista Desjarlais, Tony Maws, Eric Warnstedt, Champe- many of us have bonds through organizations we contribute to beyond James

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Beard Foundation, like Chef's Collaborative, Oldways Preservation & Trust, American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, etc. We all kind of 'dance on the same stage' in a sense - many overlapping interests and beliefs. Most importantly, many of us frequent each other's restaurants. That's always the best compliment a fellow chef can bestow upon you. When they come sit at your bar.

Speidel: It's a great group of very talented chefs, so it's truly an honor to make the list. Of course we know and admire Matt Jennings' work at La Laiterie, and have had great meals at Craigie on Main and O Ya, both in the Boston area.

Nemo, what about those restaurants?  What's your favorite on the list?

I used to work at No. 9 Park in Boston, so I know the people from Menton. Barbara Lynch, of course, but also Colin Lynch (her chef de cuisine, no relation) is a guy that was at No. 9 when I was there.  There are a ton of other big names on the list.  ABC kitchen, Benu, Torrisi, Mondo.  Really well-known chefs that get a ton of national press. Sean Brock from Husk is great, I've heard really good things about Girl and the Goat, Recette.  I think because of the size of our restaurant I'm pulling for some of the other little guys like Community Table, Salt of the Earth, Piccolo & Bootsie's.  I can't speak for any of them but I know that for us, starting a small restaurant is a daunting task and to simply be on a list with all of these other restaurants is an amazing honor.

What does this say about the current state of cuisine in Rhode Island? Providence?

Speidel: It's definitely an exciting time to be cooking in Rhode Island. There are a lot of passionate chefs putting their all into the craft -- sourcing the best ingredients, pushing the envelope in terms of creativity and technique. We feel very fortunate that we're able to cook the food that we do outside the city; it says a lot about how far we've come, how high the expectations of the dining public have soared.

Jennings: We can compete. I've known it since we've opened - or at least I should say, it has been my goal since day one - to be able to help contribute to the efforts of getting Providence some much deserved attention. There are a group of committed and talented chefs in this state, who all want to push it forward - move the needle beyond stuffies, coffeemilk and hot weiners. (Not that there's anything wrong with any of these RI heirlooms!). Point being, there is a very special food sensibility in southern New England - an impassioned group of chefs who are eager to prove themselves. Prove that Providence isn't just a stop between Boston and Foxwoods. That type of fire in the belly is good for everyone. We push ourselves, each other and hopefully create really smart and beautiful food in the process.

Bolin: I think that the fact that there are three JBA nominees from Rhode Island this year is amazing.  A lot of it goes back to the entire food community here. The farmers, fishermen, ranchers and artisans that provide us with great raw materials with which to use.  Plus, the consumers here are very well educated. They certainly won't let us get away with serving an inferior product and that's great.

We know it's an honor just to be nominated, but what will you do if you win?

Speidel: That's a good question. I guess I'd expect my wife to take me out to a nice dinner. Somewhere expensive, of course. Make sure you tell her that!

Bolin: I haven't even thought about that possibility. It seems so far-fetched that we would actually win. I guess that if we win, we'll be in New York. So probably a big celebratory dinner at a place like Fatty Crab and a few rounds of Fernet for the whole staff.

Jennings: Drink some bourbon and then get back to work.

Photo of Nemo Bolin: Kelley DeBettencourt

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