Justin Devillier, 2016 Best Chef South winner, shares why being passed over for the prestigious James Beard award could be a good thing.
As a chef who has been nominated for a James Beard award a whopping four times prior, the winning moment was long-awaited for 34-year-old , owner of La Petite Grocery and Balise in New Orleans, who was named Best Chef South by the James Beard Foundation this past May.
So what changed this year that convinced the judges he was worthy of the win? Devillier isn’t sure, but he says he’s not alone in the honor of being passed over a few times. “It’s rare to see a first-time nominee winner. Usually, it’s two to three nominations, and then you’ll win it,” he says. But the odds aren’t always in your favor, he notes, as he’s watched many nominees disappear from the food landscape.
There’s no secret to garnering the coveted Beard award; It’s much more complex than a trick of the trade, according to Devillier. “It’s not anything you can work toward,” he says. “You just work on a daily basis to be great at what you do. You try to season everything perfectly, cook to temperature perfectly.”
Devillier defines his culinary style as fundamental French techniques applied to “gritty, urban bistro food.” He says he tries to stay up with the times, not by following trends but rather by constantly making himself and his staff better cooks and hosts. Winning the James Beard Foundation award was a particularly sweet victory for Devillier, who couldn’t afford culinary school when he was younger but approached his kitchen education with savvy.
“I was smart enough to realize that if I took out the [loan]to go to culinary school, it would be almost impossible to pay off at an $8.50 an hour salary,” he says. So he contacted local chapters of the American Culinary Federation and spoke to more advanced chefs about their career paths, requesting suggestions and guidance on how to get started.
Their advice: Get to work finding a chef to emulate, and train under him or her. In addition, take some community college courses—whether they are classes in culinary, communications or business—and then combine those things as your own “self-inflicted education.”
And that’s exactly what Devillier did, beginning in his native state of California. In 2003, he headed to New Orleans. Devillier and his wife, Mia, who is general manager, took over ownership at La Petite Grocery in 2010.
Last year, the two opened the Balise, a restaurant that Devillier describes as a tavern with a “more boisterous atmosphere” than the white-table cloth bistro that is La Petite. Located in the Warehouse Dsictrict, the spot features dark wood interiors and an eclectic menu that culminates in a highly rated burger and plenty of seafood that showcases his sleek cooking skills.
Today, Devillier is in the position to dole out his own advice to the next generation of chefs. But it’s not much different than what he was told at the beginning: “If they have a trust or help from their parents, I’d say spend the $100K and go to the CIA,” he says. “But if they are in the same boat that I was in, I’d probably offer them a job.”