Supporting, not competing, for the top

Bell and Carlisle named finalists for James Beard Best Chef award

Justin Carlisle
Justin Carlisle

Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 07:22 pm

Wisconsin’s food scene was well-represented when the James Beard Foundation earlier this year announced the semifinalists for its Restaurant and Chef Awards. The state boasted 10 nominations for the categories of Outstanding Restaurant, Outstanding Restaurateur and Best Chef Midwest. Of those 10 nominees, six represented Milwaukee.

Then, last month, when the competition narrowed from 450 semifinalists down to just more than 100 finalists, two Milwaukee-based chefs advanced – representing the entire state as they joined a cohort of 50 chefs considered to be the best in the country, at least this year.

Justin Carlisle

Karen Bell, owner of Bavette La Boucherie in the Third Ward, and Justin Carlisle, owner of Ardent on Milwaukee’s East Side, are among five finalists, selected from a group of 20, for this year’s Best Chef Midwest award. They are up against three Minneapolis-based chefs – Steven Brown of Tilia, Gavin Kaysen of Spoon and Stable, and Ann Kim of Young Joni – for this paramount honor in culinary excellence.   

For industry leaders, winning a James Beard award doesn’t mean scoring a cash prize or appearing on a reality TV cooking show – the reward arguably runs deeper than that. Achieving this national recognition, and even a nomination, brings peer validation, media attention and, of course, more patronage. After all, the awards are widely known as the “Oscars” of the food and beverage world.

But for Bell and Carlisle – both Wisconsin-born chefs who left the state early in their careers to gain national and global food industry experience – it means working together, not against each other, toward a common goal. That is, putting Milwaukee’s evolving food and restaurant scene on the map for the nation to see.

“To be recognized in smaller cities or in up-and-coming cities like Milwaukee where, lets be straightforward, many people don’t expect that we have the evolved culinary scene that we actually do – really means a lot to us,” said Carlisle, who also owns The Laughing Taco in Walker’s Point and Red Light Ramen on Milwaukee’s East Side. “It’s a chance to show the outside world that we are developing, that we are a city that has a lot of amazing things, and that the restaurant community here is like no other.”

Carlisle has been around this block before – four other times, to be exact. He was named a finalist for Best Chef Midwest in 2015, 2016 and 2017. And in 2014, just five months after he opened Ardent, the upscale eatery was named a semifinalist for Best New Restaurant, a national recognition.

Bell, on the other hand, is a first-time James Beard award finalist. She was a semifinalist for Best Chef Midwest last year, but didn’t advance to the next round.

“I think we’ve had a really good food scene for a while, but it’s just taking time to get that recognition outside of Milwaukee,” Bell said. “If you’re not familiar with the city, you might not actually know what’s going on here.”

Now in the running for the second consecutive year, she said the pressure that comes along with the nomination pushes her to work harder.

In 2013, Bell opened her restaurant and butcher shop Bavette La Boucherie, located at 330 E. Menomonee St. Her original intent was to sell locally-sourced, sustainably-raised wholesale meat while serving a limited selection of sandwiches, cheese and charcuterie. Five years later, the restaurant has grown more than she ever expected.

“A butcher shop with a small café – that was my idea when we first opened – and now we are a restaurant with a small butcher shop,” she said.

Bell opened Bavette with a mission to practice whole animal butchery – a traditional, more sustainable method of butchery that uses every part of an animal. She said her interest was sparked by a national resurgence of the method around the time she opened Bavette – not to mention her previous six-year stint as a chef and restaurant owner in Madrid, Spain, where whole animal butchery is an industry norm, she said.

Karen Bell

Available as wholesale and on the menu, Bavette’s meat selection is sourced from several farms and vendors across the state, including CDK Ranch in Lena, Illinois, Kirschbaum Family Farms in Kewaskum, Pinn Oak Ridge Farm in Delavan and Dominion Valley Farm in Allenton. Bell also sources fruit and vegetables from about 10 produce farms throughout the year. With the restaurant’s casual fare, including meat-focused sandwiches, soups and salads, Bell said she doesn’t consider her restaurant a “fine dining” establishment. But, with a passion for the farm-to-table idea, she has built a culture that says otherwise.

“Whenever I interview a cook I tell them, ‘Even though you’re making a sandwich, in my eyes, it’s not just a sandwich,’” she said. “Everything we get comes from a farm and I have a personal relationship with that farmer who worked really hard to produce the best product to give to us. We will, in turn, respect that, respect the product, respect the producer, and do our very best to turn out our best product.”

Similar to Bell, Carlisle has built his own farm-to-table concept, now five years old, on his interest in locally-sourced food and his close ties with those who produce it – and those ties run deep. Many ingredients and products used at Ardent, from the beef and vegetables down to the napkins and aprons, are sourced from Carlisle Farms, his parents’ beef farm and his childhood home, located near Sparta.

“(The nomination) is very much about my family and not about myself,” he said. “I think people know by now that I’m not the guy cooking everything every single night. It takes a very well-oiled and educated, outstanding group of people to produce this on a daily basis.”

Maybe the fifth time will be the charm for Carlisle and his team. And even after coming up short for four consecutive years, he’s just happy to have made it this far.

“We’re still one of the best restaurants in the entire United States,” he said. “Having this year after year after year says that we’re not a one-time show.”

The award winners will be announced on May 7 at the James Beard Awards gala in Chicago. Until then, and regardless of the result, Milwaukee’s own James Beard finalists say they will play for the same team.

“There is no competition here,” Carlisle said. “I think the competition is to support each other to stay open, to stay moving forward, and to be able to produce the atmospheres and environments that we want. We are, in my mind, very supportive of each other.”

Bell said she is rooting for her co-finalist throughout this last round of the competition, and that she hopes he wins the award. According to both chefs, that supportive mentality is just the reality for chefs and restaurateurs within the greater food and restaurant community in Milwaukee.

“The collaboration and support is amazing,” Bell said. “Everyone is so supportive of everyone else. It’s not a competition thing and I don’t think it even needs to be because there are enough diners to support all of the great restaurants in this city.”

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Maredithe has covered retail, restaurants, entertainment and tourism since 2018. Her duties as associate editor include copy editing, page proofing and managing work flow. Meyer earned a degree in journalism from Marquette University and still enjoys attending men’s basketball games to cheer on the Golden Eagles. Also in her free time, Meyer coaches high school field hockey and loves trying out new restaurants in Milwaukee.

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