Every spring the fooderati gather for the Academy Awards of the food world, the James Beard Awards. This year’s list of nominees include celebrity chefs such as Michael Chiarello, Wylie Dufresne, Hugh Acheson and Chris Consentino, but Chattanooga’s eyes were on the “Best Chef: Southeast” category where Daniel Lindley, chef and owner of St. John’s Restaurant, St John’s Meeting Place and Alleia Restaurant, received his third nomination. While he did not advance to the finals, Lindley handles his nomination with classic Southern politeness and modesty. It is a huge honor not just for him, but for Chattanooga as well. ¶ When I first met Lindley, he emerged from the kitchen with a genuine but tired smile, his blond hair and black chef’s jacket beginning to show signs of a chef at work. His demeanor is casual yet collected and he is comfortable but passionate when he talks about his work and the dishes he creates. As I spoke to him about his background, the Chattanooga food scene and the upcoming James Beard Awards, I immediately sensed that this is a chef who is on his game and couldn’t be happier.
“Cookery is not chemistry. It is an art. It requires instinct and taste rather than exact measurements.”
To capture the attention of the James Beard Foundation requires both an artist’s eye and a well-developed palette. From a very young age Lindley had an interest in painting, drawing and music, but it was a humble grilled cheese sandwich that set him upon a different path.
“Grilled cheese was the first thing I made as a teenager,” Lindley says. “I loved them and I tried to make them better every time, slipping some pepperoni or garlic salt in there.”
After graduating high school, Lindley worked in some of Chattanooga’s best-known eateries, washing dishes at the Back Inn Café and working as a baker at Southside Grill in the mid 1990s. He had intended to go to art school, but by then the kitchen had sealed his fate. The culinary sirens played their seductive song and the 20-year-old took his artist’s eye to the highly competitive world of New York restaurants.
Lindley initially moved to Westchester County, N.Y., with a friend and worked for Chef Terry Harwood at the beautiful Harvest on Hudson restaurant on the banks of the Hudson River. In 1998, he landed an enviable position working under Tom Colicchio at the legendary Gramercy Tavern, then spent a season cooking in the Hamptons on Shelter Island before returning home to Chattanooga for the opening of St. John’s Restaurant in 2000.
While he has great respect for what a culinary education can do, Lindley didn’t attend culinary school. “When I moved to New York, I thought I might, but I ended up at some great restaurants,” he says. “It’s one of the few occupations that you don’t have to have a piece of paper to practice.”
Just take one part natural talent, one part hard work, add a touch of opportunity and you have a recipe for a James Beard Award nominee. If only it were that easy—this year alone there were a record setting 57,000 nominations for the coveted prize.
The James Beard Foundation Awards were created to honor the highest levels of achievement within the food world. Naturally, the process is done as furtively as possible, but there are essentially four steps to becoming a James beard winner.
Nominees are first recommended by a respected food critic. A group chosen by the foundation then visits the restaurant to evaluate the food, service and presentation. Five finalists are selected in each of the 20 categories by a panel of restaurant critics, food and wine editors, and previous award winners. From those five finalists the winners are chosen and announced during an elaborate ceremony, complete with celebrities, paparazzi and a green carpet walk. This year’s awards take place May 7 in New York City’s Lincoln Center and are being hosted by the ubiquitous Alton Brown of Food Network fame.