Words & Deeds

James Beard Awards: Scarce in Olive Garden-lovin’ Boise

When a chef gets nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award, it’s time to raise a glass.

Let’s two-fist our toast to Kris Komori. For the second straight year, the chef de cuisine at State & Lemp is one of 20 semifinalists in the Best Chef: Northwest category.

Besides, we’ll be drowning our sorrows March 15, most likely. When the region’s five finalists are revealed, will Komori become the first Idaho chef ever to make the short list? Will Boise finally get next-level respect from “the Oscars of food”?

The deck is stacked high. Space Needle high. Most of the judges dine in the Seattle and Portland areas. Not in Boise.

“It’s very political,” explains chef Jon Mortimer, who owned high-profile Mortimer’s Idaho Cuisine in Downtown Boise until it closed in 2008 — the same year he was nominated for a James Beard Award.

“Look at it like a presidential election and delegates,” Mortimer explains. “There’s a hell of a lot more delegates in Portland than there is in Boise. They’re going to get behind their boys and girls.”

I’m an optimist. I say there’s a 95 percent chance Komori’s name will not be on the list.

“I’m probably a little more skeptical,” Komori responds amiably. “I’m like in the 99. I say that to people, and they’re like, ‘You need to be more positive!’ Well, if it happens, then that’s even better!”

Komori, 33, is staying loose. Being a semifinalist again is already way cool. It’s a morale boost for the entire crew at State & Lemp, which offers a changing, contemporary prix fixe menu at 2870 W. State St.

“It is definitely an honor,” Komori says.

James Beard nod No. 2 indicates both excellence and consistency, two crucial goals at restaurants. That said, Komori keeps the nomination in perspective.

“We don’t take it too serious, but inevitably we feel a bit more pressure,” he says. “What that does is we push a little bit harder here and there. We really wanted the second one.”

Komori’s two nominations are important to Boise’s entire restaurant scene. If this city wants a shot at actually winning a James Beard Award, our culinary environment needs to grow.

“There are outstanding chefs in the farthest corners of the country,” says Mortimer, who now owns Carefree Catering in Phoenix. “I run into people that just blow my mind. But you need a community. You need a real food and wine community.

“And I know Boise thinks it is,” adds Mortimer, who grew up in Sun Valley. “They talk about it. And they like the idea of it. And they want a gift certificate for the soccer charity from the restaurant.

“But they eat at the Olive Garden.”

Ouch. Dude!

“And that’s fine,” Mortimer adds. “Most of America’s like that.”

He’s right. Mortimer is far enough from his prior life to speak openly. On the other hand, being Captain Candid probably won’t get him nominated for any James Beard Awards anytime soon.

“I don’t give a @#$!,” he says, chuckling.

Looking back, Mortimer remembers using his “Radio Cafe” show on KBOI 670 AM in an attempt to woo James Beard judges. The plan? Have them as guests. Be friendly. “You’ve got to know how the game’s played and just go straight after it,” he says.

Mortimer still acts a little competitive, too, based on his memory of a James Beard restaurant he “lost” to ...

“It was cool and all, but I didn’t feel like it was on our level,” Mortimer says, before laughing. “But I’m an arrogant chef, so take it for what it is!”

Mortimer is rooting for Komori. And for Boise. Go get that James Beard Award.

“It’s totally possible,” Mortimer says. “The last thing I want to do is discourage anybody from trying. Because that’s the only way you’re going to get on the map. When a chef from Boise wins, maybe it’ll wake up the community and they can use that as a nucleus to gather around and move it forward.”

Komori would love to be part of that. He sees talented young cooks moving to larger markets.

He’s already thinking about State & Lemp being recognized again in 2018.

“If restaurants in Boise keep getting nominated over and over and over, it’ll maybe just be, like, this credit to the city,” Komori says, “and we’ll retain talent and draw in talent. That’s how I’m looking at the nomination.”

“I want to go out and have an endless list of restaurants that I want to go to. Stuff like this might help.”

James Beard Award finalist or not, Komori has what you call a winning attitude.

Check my blog March 15 to find out whether he defies odds and makes the finalist list — and Idaho culinary history.

This year’s James Beard Awards winners will be announced May 2 at the James Beard Awards Gala in Chicago.

Michael Deeds: 208-377-6407, @michaeldeeds