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Celebration is on the menu for Vermont's three James Beard Award nominees

A table of small plates.
Courtesy of Honey Road
Chef Cara Tobin of the Burlington restaurant Honey Road is one of Vermont's three James Beard nominees in 2024.

When the James Beard Foundation announced the 2024 Restaurant and Chef Awards semifinalists last week, two Vermont restaurants and a bar got some very happy news.

Two Burlington chefs are nominated for the Best Chef in the Northeast category: Cara Tobin, the executive chef and co-owner of Honey Road (as well as Grey Jay nearby), and Micah Tavelli, Paradiso Hi-Fi. The cocktail bar at the Barr Hill distillery in Montpelier is nominated in a nationwide category, Outstanding Bar.

"I'd spoken with my fiancée earlier in the day and had told her, 'I don't want to know. Like, don't text me, don't call me, I've got a lot of work today," Tavelli said on Vermont Edition. "And of course she called me like an hour after I got to work, and she was crying." That's when he knew.

His staff at the restaurant, which opened in 2022, are "pumped up," Tavelli said. "The restaurant feels electric right now."

Nearby on Church Street, Tobin was also celebrating, though Honey Road is no stranger to hat tips from James Beard. This is Tobin's fourth nomination, and the restaurant's pastry chef, Amanda Wildermuth, was nominated last year for Outstanding Pastry Chef or Baker.

The Barr Hill distillery team celebrated after finding out they were nominated for a James Beard award.
Courtesy of Patrick Amice
The Barr Hill distillery team celebrated after finding out they were nominated for a James Beard award.

"It's a nice validation for myself, but also for the staff," Tobin said. "I think about them and all the hard work that they put in, and I hope that they feel really proud."

Meanwhile at Barr Hill, staff and managers were ecstatic. "Everyone was screaming," said Patrick Amice, the general manager of hospitality operations for Caledonia Spirits, which owns Barr Hill. "I think Leigh [Samuels, Caledonia Spirits' marketing director] was crying," he added. "My team deserves all the credit. They've been working really hard."

While all three nominees have their own specialties, flavor profiles and culinary passions, they share a commitment to local sourcing — even during Vermont's long winters.

"You have to be very creative in the winter," Tobin said. No one who's eaten at Honey Road would be concerned about a lack of creativity in its kitchen. Tobin brought up a recent dish she posted about recently, involving deep fried sweet potato, marinated beets, microgreens and goat cheese. "All four of those things were local, and I was thinking to myself, 'Wow, yeah, we can still do it.'"

Paradiso Hi-Fi sources all of its ingredients from New England, "which has been a huge challenge," Tavelli said, "but it definitely makes you think outside the box. Like, how many different ways can you cook beets? Turns out, a lot."

Not having chocolate or citrus to work with for dessert has pushed him and his team to successfully experiment with less traditional sweet ingredients. Like Tobin, he brought up an "awesome" sweet potato dish: candied sweet potato topped with toasted marshmallow, oat streusel and made-to-order caramel.

More From Vermont Public: Randolph chef earns James Beard nod for her traditional Thai cuisine

At Barr Hill, local ingredients dominate the cocktail menu. Their locally sourced mix-ins include coffee, eggs, and even goat cheese. When they do use ingredients that aren't easily available in this region, they still try to stay as close to home as possible. The lemons for their signature Bees Knees cocktail, for example, come from a yuzu grower in New Jersey.

The restaurateurs also share a commitment to maintaining a healthy work environment. (They are all familiar with the hit TV show The Bear and want no part in recreating that type of atmosphere for their staff.)

When Tobin started working in the industry in the late 1990s, "being a woman in the kitchen was really hard," she said. She remembers sitting with her business partner, Allison Gibson, and making a conscious decision to do things differently at Honey Road.

"You can scare someone when they do something wrong. You can yell and reprimand them and do all those things. It doesn't mean that they're going to change. All that means is they're going to hide their mistake next time," she said. "The first time they make a mistake, it's really my fault for not showing them properly the way to do it. And so I take that responsibility on myself."

From there, it's all about inspiring staff to do their best work. "I don't want anyone to feel uncomfortable or like they're not learning, or they can't come to me with a question," she said. "So that really inspires everything that we do."

The James Beard finalists will be notified on April 3, and winners will be announced on June 10.

Broadcast live at noon on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontedition.

Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.