Chef Sue Zemanick has earned accolades running the kitchens at fine dining stalwart Gautreau's (1728 Soniat St., 504-899-7397; www.gautreausrestaurant.com) and the small plates restaurant Ivy (5015 Magazine St., 504-899-1330), which opened last year. The James Beard Foundation named her and Peche Seafood Grill chef Ryan Prewitt co-winners of Best Chef: South at a ceremony May 5 in New York. Beard awards are given annually for excellence in cuisine and culinary writing in the United States. Zemanick spoke with Gambit about the award and her work.
How did you feel leading up to the Beard awards?
Zemanick: The James Beard Awards are like the Academy Awards for chefs — everywhere you see other people you'd like to potentially partner with and who you admire. This was my fifth time being nominated for a Beard, and now every year the biggest worry when nominations come out is that I won't make the finalist cut. I did, though, and really felt like this could be my year because of all the momentum we had going. [It's] a little bit of a relief going to the award ceremony and getting to enjoy it and not having to jump up on stage and make an acceptance speech. It's really just a fun time.
Did you prepare a speech this year? What were your first thoughts when your name was called?
Z: I definitely had nothing written down or prepared to say, so I just had to kind of wing it. My biggest worry, actually, was about making it up on stage. I had a huge fear of tripping and falling on my way up and pulling a Jennifer Lawrence. I made it up there, though, without a disaster. There was another tie this year in a different category, and a few last year as well, but it's not super common. It was a real relief to have Ryan up on stage with me, because it really took away a lot of the pressure and anxiety that would have been happening if I have been up there all alone.
I've had all the anxiety I can handle from being on Top Chef: Masters twice — no more competition cooking shows for me. I still have nightmares about it.
Do you think that opening a second restaurant is what tipped the scales in your favor this year?
Z: Well, we were a one-restaurant group for so long, but Ivy felt just like a natural sort of fit for folks who couldn't get into Gautreau's on any given night or who wanted something a little more casual. I'm really proud of both restaurants.
We're planning a party for everyone to celebrate the win, but other than that I'm just excited to ride out the summer in New Orleans and enjoy the humidity. — SARAH BAIRD