A Cut Above: Wisconsin’s James Beard-Awarded Chefs

By Kristina LeVan
Staff Writer

Early each year, the James Beard Foundation announces semifinalists for its prestigious James Beard Award – a lineup of that year’s best of the best in American cuisine, culinary writing and culinary education.

Wisconsin’s growing restaurant scene continues to attract national attention, so it’s no surprise that many of our chefs have made it on the list, with some even taking home the top prize. Here’s a sampling of Wisconsin-based chefs who have been recognized by the renowned foundation. 

Justin Carlisle, Ardent Milwaukee

Opened in 2013, Ardent is still in its culinary-world infancy. But in just three short years, the restaurant, which features a contemporary take on farm-to-table fare, has received numerous awards and accolades, including a 2014 James Beard Award nomination for best new restaurant and a nod as one of the 15 best new restaurants by Conde Nast Traveler.

Executive chef Justin Carlisle’s farm-to-table history runs deep. He hails from a small beef farm in rural Wisconsin and continues to pay homage to fresh, seasonal food at his highly-acclaimed restaurant.

Ardent’s menu may be simple – even the names of the dishes are limited to just one or two words – but its flavors and presentation are complex.

It’s no wonder the James Beard Foundation soon directed its honors toward the executive chef. In 2016, he was named a finalist for Best Chef – Midwest.

Jonny Hunter Madison

As a 2016 James Beard Award Semifinalist for Best Chef – Midwest, it’s hard to believe that Jonny Hunter has no formal culinary training.

His start in the industry began at a coffee house in the basement of a church, where he sold vegetarian lunches to his fellow students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. There he learned the importance of community building in the food industry, a practice that he still values today as one of the founders of Madison’s Underground Food Collective, which includes a catering business, meat processing facility, butcher shop and fine dining restaurant.

It’s for his work at the fine dining restaurant, Forequarter, that Hunter received his James Beard nomination. 

Tory Miller, L’etoile Madison  

For 40 years, L’etoile has led Wisconsin’s sustainable food movement with its farm-to-table philosophy. Started by Odessa Piper in 1976, the restaurant has partnered with local farms for four decades, a tradition that continues to expand with current owner and Executive Chef Tory Miller.

Miller champions today’s farmers by meticulously building each menu to highlight the farms’ best ingredients; more than 200 vendors provide meat, vegetables, fruit and dairy to the acclaimed restaurant.

And Miller’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. In 2012, he received the James Beard Award for Best Chef – Midwest, and in 2016 he was named a semifinalist for Best Outstanding Chef.

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