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Editor's Note: This story is unlocked for everyone to read courtesy of the CRVA, our partner in nourishing culinary exploration for residents and visitors of the Queen City.

March 29, 2023

James Beard Foundation names Sam Hart Best Chef finalist

Winners will be announced in June

by Kristen Wile

The James Beard Foundation announced its list of finalists in the 2023 Awards competition, and Charlotte chef Sam Hart of Counter- has advanced as a nominee in the Best Chef: Southeast category.

Hart says he’s planning to buy the entire Counter- team a trip to Chicago for the upcoming awards ceremony. “We went so long feeling so invalidated and there was such a period of time where they didn’t even think this restaurant was going to open…” Hart says. “This shit’s wild. It’s so wild.”

Counter- started as a pop-up ahead of the pandemic before opening in a brick-and-mortar space at The City Kitch in September 2020, featuring themed tasting menus paired with music. The restaurant temporarily closed last year to move to a larger space in West Charlotte, opening its doors in December.

Charlotte had two other semi-finalists on this year’s list. Greg Collier of Leah & Louise was a semifinalist for Outstanding Chef while Salud Cerveceria in NoDa was a semifinalist in the Outstanding Bar category. Neither Collier nor Salud advanced.

“It’s an honor to have been mentioned amongst the best chef’s in the country,” Collier says. “While I wanted to make it to the finals, I’m proud of the work Subrina and I have done and will continue to do. Awards are great, but they have never been our why.”

Following an audit of the awards’ process in 2021, the James Beard Foundation made significant changes to the way it selects its nominees and winners. The awards now feature a more diverse voting body, and the nominees’ involvement in their communities and improving the restaurant industry are part of consideration. “The James Beard Awards mission is to recognize exceptional talent and achievement in the culinary arts, hospitality, media, and broader food system; as well as a demonstrated commitment to racial and gender equity, community, environmental sustainability, and a culture where all can thrive,” the Foundation stated in a press release when the Awards returned in 2022 following a pandemic hiatus.

Charlotte’s nominees since the return of the Awards have exemplified that desire to honor chefs with an impact beyond their kitchens. Greg Collier and his wife, Subrina, have lead a push in Charlotte to bring attention to and mentor Black chefs in the city while serving some of the city’s most personal Southern fare. At Counter-, Sam Hart has been vocal about his restaurant and business model’s prioritization of staff wellbeing. The highlight of chefs that show not only culinary talent but such a high level of advocacy indicates that the Foundation is serious about honoring those who are making change in the industry.

Charlotte has not yet had a chef named a James Beard Award winner; Collier has come the closest with his finalist nomination. With the awards’ previous procedures — which gave past winners, none of whom live here, a significant amount of voting power — it was difficult for Charlotte to naturally draw in enough of the voting body to advance beyond the semifinalist round. Winners in that round are selected from open nominations, and do not require committee members to have dined at the restaurant. Judges and committee members are now assigned restaurants to dine at and grade, with the five best-scoring semi-finalists moving on to become finalists, referred to as nominees by the James Beard Foundation. This year, that list includes Hart and Counter-.

The winners will be announced live at an awards ceremony on June 5, 2023.

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