The fourth time's a charm for Vikram Sunderam.
After three previous James Beard Award nominations, the chef behind Rasika and Rasika West End walked away with the trophy Monday night for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic. He triumphed over some tough competition, including Spike Gjerde from Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore, Brad Spence from Amis in Philadelphia, Cindy Wolf from Charleston in Baltimore and Restaurant Eve's Cathal Armstrong, who was once again left standing at the altar. Armstrong has departed New York eight straight years without a Beard Award.
Sunderam's win came nine years after the chef opened Rasika in 2005 in Penn Quarter. A native of Bombay, India, Sunderam, 47, spent eight years as executive chef at Bombay Brasserie in London before restaurateur Ashok Bajaj hired him to cross the pond and run the kitchen at Rasika. When Sunderam first arrived in the United States, he hadn't even heard of the James Beard Awards.
In fact, when Sunderam received his first Beard nomination in 2009, "I was thinking, 'What is the big deal?'" the Beard winner said. "Slowly, over the years, you realize what it means to everybody in the industry."
Sunderam said he was surprised to hear his name called Monday. So surprised, in fact, he didn't prepare any remarks as he walked to the stage to address his peers, the media, friends, his long-time wife Anjali and even their children who were watching at home via a live stream of the program.
"I didn't believe it, to be honest with you. It was s shock," Sunderam said. "It's a very humbling experience. All the chefs in the room yesterday. . .They're all very good chefs. To be one of them is a very humbling experience."
When he finally gathered himself and spoke off the cuff, Sunderam shared the award with all those who work with him, whether front or back of the house. The chef echoed the sentiment Tuesday during a brief interview. "It's a great honor, but it's not for me. It's for the whole restaurant, the whole company," Sunderam said. "I'm just there because I'm the leader, but if not for them, I wouldn't be standing on the stage."
Sunderam said he had received calls and texts from his fellow chefs in the Knightsbridge Restaurant Group, Bajaj's company that includes not only Rasika and Rasika West End but also the Oval Room, Bombay Club, Bibiana and other restaurants. One of the chef's biggest fans right now is his boss, Bajaj, the man who has been building and nurturing restaurants for 25 years in Washington. This is the first of Bajaj's establishments to win a Beard Award.
The restaurateur was philosophical about his company's first win. It may have taken a quarter century, but Bajaj started in the hospitality business as a young man in his mid-20s. "I'm still young," said Bajaj, who declined to reveal his age. "I have a few years to go."
Typical for Bajaj, he views the award not only as an honor but as a reminder to keep working hard. "Last night, we were talking that the bar was lifted even higher," Bajaj said. Tom Sietsema's four-star review of Rasika "raised the bar" a few years back, he added, "and now it's been raised again."