PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Chef James Beard was born in Portland in 1903 — and decades later, a prestigious award named after him is one of the most influential across the country.

There are nine semifinalists in our area this year, including seven in Portland. 

“Restaurants, chefs, their teams, they’re the backbone of our communities. That’s a fact, you know, we go to eat out to celebrate, to cry over a broken heart or loss. You know, we go there to have company, whether we’re dining alone or with friends,” said Dawn Padmore, vice president of awards at the James Beard Foundation.

Food and the meals we have, Padmore explained, are often part of the biggest moments in our lives. 

The James Beard Foundation is honoring some of the outstanding people and places that help us have those moments. 

“The mission of the awards is to recognize exceptional talent and achievement in the culinary arts, hospitality, et cetera, and exceptional talent, you know, is exceptional talents,” Padmore said.

One of the nine local semifinalists in 2022 is Portland’s Thuy Pham in the emerging chef category. 

“What I did before Mama Dut was I was a hairstylist prior to this,” Pham said. “I started Mama Dut in the pandemic, essentially after I was unable to work, and vegan Vietnamese because I’m from Vietnam. I grew up eating Vietnamese food and I’m vegan, and I wanted to do something that stood for the things that I believed in.”

As her business grows in popularity, the roots of her restaurant will always be close to her heart. 

“So, the meaning behind the name Mama Dut actually starts with my daughter. Kinsley, since they were little, they had always used the term ‘mama dut’ anytime they got lazy to feed themselves. And anytime I wanted Kinsley to try anything new, I would be like, ‘Kinsley, come here, mama dut, mama dut,’ or Kinsley would be like ‘mama dut,’ you know, she doesn’t want to eat. And so, when it came time to pick a name for the business, it just, there was no other name to pick except for Mama Dut,” Pham explained.

Vince Nguyen, another local semifinalist, also chose a name with personal significance when he created Berlu

Some of the dishes offered at Portland’s Berlu, a semi-finalist for a 2022 James Beard Award. March (Vince Nguyen).

“So, Berlu is actually derived from the French word ‘herluberlu’ which is a strange or eccentric person,” Pham said.

The semifinalist for best chef in the region describes himself as disciplined in the kitchen. 

“But I’m also this very free-loving guy that just wants to make memes and TikToks and stuff like that and play with my puppy,” Nguyen said. 

With nearly 15 years of experience in top restaurants, Nguyen opened his own place in Portland the summer of 2019, several months before the pandemic.  

“I think what the pandemic taught us is to be flexible. With that, we also have a lot of people that have been really supportive and want to help us get through this,” Nguyen said.

Berlu owner Vince Nguyen with other Berlu staff. March 2, 2022 (Vince Nguyen).

Berlu’s flexibility is also about variety, which includes a Sunday morning bakery, evening tasting menu and a wine bar. 

“I feel like I represent the Portland restaurant community. I represent the Vietnamese community and also represent this new wave of, this new generation of chefs,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen added he thinks part of the new generation is a demand for a better lifestyle.

“You know, [a] less hostile work environment, a healthy environment,” he explained. “And you know, if it takes a goofy Asian dude to come and do that… I’m proud to be that.”

That new generation of chefs is being recognized by the James Beard Foundation. 

“We spent the last couple of years conducting a full audit of the policies and the procedures of all of our awards programs, not just restaurants and chef, but the media awards, all of it really to keep working towards removing any bias and really looking to integrate even more equity, sustainability. Really something that is representative of the industry,” Padmore said.

The award winners will be announced in June.

Local semifinalists for the 2022 James Beard Foundation restaurant and chef awards:

‘Best Chef Northwest and Pacific’ category:

National categories:

Coquine — Outstanding Hospitality

Republica — Best New Restaurant

Thuy Pham at Mama Dut — Emerging Chef

Akkapong “Earl” Ninsom of Langbaan, Hat Yai, Eem, and others — Outstanding Restauranteur

Hood River’s Hiyu Wine Farm — Outstanding Wine Program