But what does this honor really mean? Best I can tell, it means that Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which owns the beer-centric Birch & Barley and sister bar, ChurchKey, merely has a deeper contact list and slightly better PR machinery than the second-place chef, David Guas, who opened his Bayou Bakery in November without the support of an umbrella group.
To push Bailey over the finish line on March 1, the last night of voting, NRG turned ChurchKey into a quasi-campaign headquarters. According to an NRG publicist, the beer bar was packed with people voting on their smart phones. The restaurant group also worked its e-mail lists and social media contacts, which you would expect from every candidate in this contest. It apparently worked for Bailey. The chef won with 31.13 percent of the vote, compared to Guas’s 28.21 percent. Justin Severino from Elements Contemporary Cuisine in Pittsburgh finished third with 24.65 percent of the vote.
For his part, Guas and his wife, Simone Rathle of the Simoneink public relations firm, also worked their networks hard to secure a victory for the Bayou Bakery chef. E-mails Guas:
As you can see it was a close finish. Simoneink pursued all the organizations that I was affiliated with that would provide big numbers for a big turnout of votes. We reached out to most of the people that in some form or another could have had my food. From Best Buddies Virginia where I am [an advisory] board member and I cook at some of their events to Euphoria Food and Wine Festival in Greenville, South Carolina. I have been a presenter, lecturer and moderator at the festival for 5 years now. I reached out to friends in the industry like Robert Wiedmaier and other friends and supporter in the industry like Passion Food Hospitality then to New Orleans, Alabama, Florida relatives and friends, etc. I think that is what put us in the lead for a good bit of time.
Voting appeared to come down to the final day, when NRG made one last push and Guas ... well, he was doing inventory. Continues Guas in his e-mail:
I was not able to provide an all-night push. So that ties the hands of anyone trying to secure more votes. There comes a point where you have to [cry] Uncle and say whatever happens will happen. Do not get me wrong, I think NRG did a great job to the last minute. Of course they did. What was I doing? I was at my eatery doing inventory and orders for Wednesday as there was no else making those decisions except me. Got home by 11:30 p.m. and just in time to hear from Simoneink and company that the numbers were changing. I said it is what [it] is and we busted our chops to keep us on the playing field, and I am very proud of that effort from my staff at BB and from all of the associates at Simoneink and to all my loyal fans and supporters.
So the People’s Best New Chef Award turned into a popularity contest. Then again, popularity contests are the American way. They start in junior high hallways and escalate all the way up to the vote for the American presidency -- unless, that is, you can convince me that you read all the presidential candidates’ position papers before casting your ballot. We Americans aren’t exactly known worldwide for our intellectual rigor; we prefer to play favorites, often based on little more than a single important issue or, in this case, perhaps a single visit to a single restaurant, all the others be damned.
So while I take my hat off to Kyle Bailey -- a talented chef who has taken a mere beer-pairing concept and turned it into something all his own -- I also acknowledge that the “loss” for the other chefs means absolutely nothing. Bailey was gracious in victory.
“I was thrilled that Food & Wine nominated me for this honor. That’s a great list of chefs to be included in,” Bailey sent via e-mail. “There was so much support from the staff, everyone who came into the restaurant – even the local beer community rallied. A huge thank you to everyone who voted.”
Guas was equally gracious in placing second:
“I think it is great that another D.C. chef got the nod as I feel the Washington D.C. tri-state area is truly the heart of the Mid- Atlantic, and it is nice to have someone represent the home team,” Guas wrote. “I ate at Birch & Barley when it first opened and had a great meal. I know [NRG co-owner] Michael Babin and we share a Louisiana connection -- so I’m happy for him and his group. So I think he is deserving of the award as was some of the other finalists like Nic [Stefanelli] at Bibiana. I find these guys are talented and not to sound sappy, but I was in good company.”