Greenville’s food scene has gotten a nod from one of the most prestigious culinary awards in the country.
The James Beard Foundation has nominated Oak Hill Café and Farm as a 2020 semifinalist for Best New Restaurant and Adam Cooke, executive chef of Topsoil Kitchen & Market as Best Chef Southeast.
This is the first time in recent history that Greenville has had two James Beard semifinalists in the same year.
Oak Hill is one of 30 restaurants from around the country that was nominated for the award, which is given to the restaurant that has opened in 2019 and “already demonstrates excellence in cuisine and hospitality, and that is likely to make a significant impact in years to come.”
Cooke is one of 20 chefs throughout the Southeast who earned a nomination for the award that goes to “chefs who set high culinary standards and also demonstrate integrity and admirable leadership skills in their respective regions.”
Reached by phone Wednesday morning shortly after the nominations were released, Oak Hill owners Lori Nelsen and David Porras were still stunned. The two, who began collaborating on their farm and restaurant concept nearly three years ago were on the brink of crying and shouting for joy.
“Magic happened,” Porras said, his voice still shaky with excitement.
“And it means a lot for our team too,” he continued. “If in eight months, we did this, we can do more.”
Cooke was decidedly less exuberant on account of recovering from a cold and a late event the evening before. But even through his fatigue, his satisfaction was noticeable.
He pointed to the collective of the kitchen.
“Something like this comes down to the team in the kitchen,” Cooke said. “No chef does it alone.”
Oak Hill grew out of a shared passion for ingredients and a mutual infatuation with food and cooking. The restaurant sits in a renovated house just off Poinsett Highway, also has a greenhouse and a farm, resulting in a hyper-local menu that is sourced from the property and other local farms.
But Oak Hill takes food beyond the plated dish and into the chemistry and composition of ingredients. The restaurant boasts a lab, where Oak Hill chefs, as well as chefs from around Greenville, can research and experiment.
“It is a big, big deal, not only for us, but for Greenville,” Porras said. “It means we are on the right track. Greenville is doing the right thing.”
Cooke, who first came to Greenville to lead the kitchen at Restaurant 17 in 2013, returned in 2018 at the behest of friends and culinary comrade, Patrick McInerney. At the time, Cooke led the kitchen at Due South Coffee at Hampton Station, but soon, McInerney, Cooke and fellow culinarian and entrepreneur Wendy Lynam began dreaming of a restaurant.
The result is Topsoil, which opened in the fall, and marries a local sourcing sensibility, bold but familiar flavors and comfort.
Ultimately, all the nominees said the James Beard news was a boost, but that the day would continue as usual, perhaps with more resolve. Cooke was on his way to prep for lunch service and Porras and Nelsen were set to prep for a euphoria event Thursday.
“We’ve got to work harder,” Porras said.
Greenville has been making more of an appearance on the James Beard semifinalist lists in the past few years. The Anchorage was nominated as a semifinalist for Best New Restaurant in 2018, and Husk chef Jon Buck was named a semifinalist for Best New Chef Southeast in 2019.
The full list of 2020 semifinalists can on the James Beard Foundation website.
The Foundation will announce the final nominees for all Award categories on March 25, and chef and restaurant award winners will be announced during a special gala presentation May 4.
Lillia Callum-Penso covers food for The Greenville News. She can be reached at [email protected] or at 864-478-5872, or on Facebook at facebook.com/lillia.callumpenso.
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