Three Baltimore chefs have been named semifinalists for the James Beard Awards—one of the nation’s most prestigious culinary honors, second only to Michelin stars.
Woodberry Kitchen’s Spike Gjerde is the only Baltimore chef to ever walk away with the final prize since the awards’ establishment in 1990. He was crowned Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic in 2015.
This year’s crop of talent up for the challenge includes 13-time semifinalist and nine-time finalist in the Mid-Atlantic category, Cindy Wolf—known for a number of highly-acclaimed projects in Baltimore under the Foreman-Wolf moniker—and Peter Chang, who created a legacy as a DMV chef beginning in the early 2000s.
Both are semifinalists in the Outstanding Chef category—a national recognition. Chang’s latest venture in Baltimore, NiHao, is a semifinalist for Best New Restaurant.
In the Mid-Atlantic category, Carlos Raba of Remington’s Clavel Mezcaleria is a finalist for Best Chef.
The 2022 finalists—both national and regional—will be announced on Wednesday, March 16, and winners will be chosen at a ceremony in Chicago on June 13.
Representing Charm City and Beyond
“I think as a Mexican chef, it’s a great honor getting the recognition, and more when I’m trying to do Mexican food as pure and simple as it is and retaining the beauty of it,” Raba says.
Clavel—open since 2015—draws on his childhood recipes from Sinaloa, Mexico, and the talents of a kitchen staff that is 90% Latinx, according to the chef.
The restaurant was recognized in 2019 and 2020 in the Outstanding Bar Program category, but this designation is the first time Raba has made the semifinals as a chef.
Raba says what sets him apart is his commitment of connecting food to memories—ensuring he can replicate the
experience customers had on their first visit.
“That’s what I did for many years with food—remembering the places I couldn’t go because I couldn’t travel to Mexico,” he says. “It’s how I remember my grandmother. That’s how I remember my aunts; that’s how I remember my uncles.”
His newest project, a grab-and-go concept in Towson called Nana, will open this summer.
Wolf has been honored by James Beard many times since her debut in 1995 with Savannah. Her flagship, Charleston, has been a fixture in Harbor East since 1997.
Gourmet magazine described her food as “personal and worldly, refined and hearty,” a previous Style article notes. The New York Times called it “splendid.”
“Cindy is the icon,” her business partner Tony Foreman said at the time. “We don’t require some other symbol.”
This James Beard designation is the first time, however, that Wolf has broken through to the national Outstanding Chef category. Her most recent ventures with Foreman include Cindy Lou’s Fish House in Fells Point and The Milton Inn in Sparks Glencoe.
Growing from Within
NiHao was meant to be a side project from Chang’s restaurant group offering a different approach.
“We wanted to branch out from the core Peter Chang group a little bit—kind of bringing the modern elements of Chinese cuisine to a different market, and we thought Baltimore is the best place to do that,” says Lydia Zhang.
Zhang, daughter of Chang and co-founder of the Canton restaurant with her partner Pichet Ong, attributes much of its early success to Baltimore City itself.
Everyone on the NiHao team is either from Baltimore or lives in Baltimore, she says. Their closeness to the community and resilience during the early days of the pandemic—the restaurant opened in July 2020—made a difference.
Zhang is proud to offer educational events such as classes on dumplings and baiju—a national Chinese spirit.
Peter Chang has been nominated in the Mid-Atlantic category several times in previous years, but this year also marks his first as a national semifinalist. He attributes his honor to continuing to follow his passion and constantly pivoting to new challenges.
“Doesn’t matter where I end up being in five or 10 days, I’ll keep doing what I do the best,” Chang says in an email.
That commitment to hard work without the recognition is something Zhang has noticed in Baltimore.
“In a lot of the major cities, you do things because you want to get something,” she says. “But I feel like everyone in Baltimore…we just want to do what we know is the best and we want to grow from within.”