Providence had grown a fine-dining reputation that led to the city being named the nation’s top food destination in Travel & Leisure’s annual survey for 2012.
That turned more than a few heads and brought both pride, and new diners, as well as hungry travelers, to the city.
Also bringing national attention has been the emergence of R.I. chefs on the James Beard Foundation annual semifinalist lists for Best Chef Northeast, Rising Star, Best New Restaurant, Best Bar Program and Outstanding Service.
These chefs bring the latest in techniques, flavors and passion to the dining scene, just as earlier groundbreakers started some 45 years ago.
A new era for the awards, considered the Oscars of the restaurant world, brought more focus on chefs outside the major cities of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. It was well beyond time the spotlight made it to New England and other regions developing great culinary talent.
In 2011, Champe Speidel of Persimmon, then in Bristol and now in Providence, and Matt Jennings of the former La Laiterie in Providence, were among the 20 semifinalists for Best Chef: Northeast. The now-closed Cook & Brown Public House, owned by Nemo Bolin, made the Best New Restaurant list.
Since that breakthrough year ten years ago, Jennings made it to finalist for Best Chef Northeast three times before leaving Providence. He now lives in Vermont.
Speidel has garnered seven nominations for the Northeast chef title while the Providence restaurant he owns with wife Lisa Speidel has twice been a semifinalist for Outstanding Service.
Cook & Brown also made the Best Bar Program semifinalist list in 2013, led by Jennifer Ferreira, now the beverage manager of Providence’s The Eddy and Durk’s Bar-B-Q.
Most recently, Ben Sukle has been a finalist twice for Best Chef Northeast for Oberlin and the now closed Birch. They were in 2017 and 2018, when it was his fourth nomination in five years. Sukle was nominated as a Rising Star chef (an under-30, national category) in 2012 when he was at The Dorrance in Providence.
In 2019, North and Big King owner/chef James Mark made the finalist list on his first nomination. He was again nominated in 2020.
Derek Wagner has twice been a semifinalist for his Nicks on Broadway. He was just 25 when he opened Nicks.
A new face popped up in 2020. She is chef Gonzalez-Trasvina who was at the helm when the Newport Restaurant Group opened Bar ‘Cino a year earlier in Newport. She was born in Mexico and spent 10 years in Puerto Rico before coming to Johnson & Wales University where she earned her culinary degree.
All of the Beard chef nominees still operating their restaurants have one thing in common, they all graduated from Johnson & Wales University in Providence.