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St. Louis’ two 2017 James Beard Award winners represent the variety the local dining scene offers

Alex Donley and Kevin Nashan show off their newly-earned James Beard Foundation Awards.
Catherine Klene | Sauce Magazine
Alex Donley and Kevin Nashan show off their newly-earned James Beard Foundation Awards.

Earlier this week, the St. Louis dining scene was lauded with two more feathers in its cap: the James Beard Foundation awarded Sidney Street Café’s chef/owner Kevin Nashan with the coveted Best Chef: Midwest award and Gioia’s Deli was heralded with an America’s Classic award.

On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, Nashan and Alex Donley, the co-owner of Gioia’s Deli on the Hill, alongside Sauce Magazine’s Catherine Klene, joined host Don Marsh to discuss the awards, their impact on the St. Louis dining scene and upcoming restaurants to keep an eye out for.

“It’s overwhelming,” Nashan said of his win, which came as a surprise on May 1. “It is huge for our city, huge for our team. We’re floored. I’m still somewhat in disbelief. Who goes in there thinking they’re going to win? You’re grateful to be on the bus. That itself is magnitude.”

The James Beard Foundation Awards are like the Academy Awards of the restaurant world, said Klene. Chefs and leaders in the restaurant industry are submitted by community members to the James Beard Foundation Awards Committee and are narrowed down from a pool of 300 semi-finalists to fewer than 30 total winners. You can find a full list of awardees here.

Donley’s experience was a little different from the “best chef” category awardees. The award for Gioia’s Deli was announced in January. He said he got to enjoy the James Beard Foundation gala stress-free. The award did have an impact on the restaurant’s bottom line, though.

“It made a huge difference: the day we announced, our line was out the door, down Macklind,” Donley said. “It was great for our little shop on the corner of Macklind and Dagget.”

The America’s Classic award goes to a restaurant that has timeless appeal, is beloved in its region and reflects the character of the community. Gioia’s award is the first for the St. Louis community.

In addition to his “Best Chef: Midwest” designation, Nashan also cooked the entire awards gala meal.

Nashan said he’s been cooking his whole life. He grew up in New Mexico, where his family had a restaurant. It wasn’t until he came to school at SLU and went to culinary school that he realized he wanted to become a chef. When asked if he had a signature dish, he said: “Good food. That’s the goal every day. It’s trying to make people happy.”

Nashan said he tries to balance familiarity with ingredients that will create some interest in the dish, sometimes pushing boundaries.

Donley, on the other hand, said Gioia’s is focused on continuing quality as they make 700-800 sandwiches per day. In 2018, the restaurant will turn 100 years old. Today,

“It is making sure those sandwiches the way they were exactly 30 years ago,” Donley said. “Everyone who comes in Gioia’s will understand the legacy Gioia has in the community. The person you’re making that sandwich for at 70 years old was coming in when they were 10. I’m the ambassador for that.”

What’s remarkable is that St. Louis is being recognized for having a restaurant scene that holds both ends of the spectrum.

“There’s big differences between these two restaurants in terms of what they do and their menu and how they execute what they do, but the fact that both are doing what they do at such a high level and getting national recognition, speaks volumes about St. Louis as a dining scene and really puts us on the map as a dining destination,” Klene said. “This is not just a place with a few great restaurants, this is a place with a wide spectrum of what we can do. These guys are great examples of that spectrum.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.