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Philadelphians win big at James Beard Awards

The Beards, dubbed the Oscars of the food world, are determined by votes among the food community.

CHICAGO — The top restaurateur and the top chef in America live in Philadelphia. So does the best chef in the Mid-Atlantic region.

And the top-ranked wine, spirits, and beer professional lives at the Delaware beaches.

Area food professionals shook off a long drought to win major categories Monday at the James Beard Awards, regarded as the Oscars of the food world.

Stephen Starr was named the best restaurateur in America after four previous years as a finalist. His New York restaurant Le Coucou, which he opened last year with chef Daniel Rose, won for best new restaurant.

Michael Solomonov of Zahav was named the best chef.

Greg Vernick of Vernick Food & Drink won as the best chef in the mid-Atlantic region on his third try.

Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Brewery won the Beard for outstanding wine, spirits, or beer professional on his seventh try.

Starr, whose 32-restaurant, four-state empire started two decades ago with a hip revamping of the Continental Diner in Old City, clicked this year with the hundreds of national food and restaurant cognoscenti who vote for the Beard Awards. Le Coucou helped to burnish his image beyond that of simply a creator of popular, moneymaking restaurants such as Buddakan, Morimoto, and Parc.

Thanking his chefs and his 5,000 employees  including those who are immigrants — Starr said: "I couldn't bear to hear my daughter Sara say, 'You're still number one to me,' again."

Solomonov, who broke out in 2008 with chef-business partner Steve Cook with Zahav, is enjoying great success. He and Cook won the Beard's book of the year and international cookbook last year for Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking. Solomonov also was the subject of a documentary, In Search of Israeli Cuisine. His empire this year added Rooster Soup Co. and Goldie to a roster that includes Dizengoff, Federal Donuts, and Abe Fisher.

Solomonov was Philadelphia's last winner, when he brought home the Mid-Atlantic award in 2011. Since then, it's been shutout after shutout.

Zahav also was nominated for best service, but lost to Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown, N.Y. Zahav's pastry chef, Camille Cogswell, was a finalist for rising star chef of the year; she lost to Zachary Engel of New Orleans' Shaya, owned by Main Line native Alon Shaya.

Vernick, whose polished Vernick Food & Drink near Rittenhouse Square is a critical and popular favorite, was named the best chef in the mid-Atlantic region. "I wish this could be a team award," said Vernick, who grew up in Cherry Hill and learned as the right-hand man of celebrated chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

Vernick, a low-key man, seemed astonished as he thanked his wife, Julie, the restaurant's general manager, Ryan Mulholland, and his employees at the Walnut Street bistro, which opened in May 2012. He then exhorted the crowd to party. This was Vernick's third consecutive trip to the Beards awards ceremony — each time facing fellow hometown favorite Rich Landau of the vegan destination Vedge.

Calagione of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton, Del., won the Beard for outstanding wine, spirits, or beer professional. Calagione founded the brewery in 1995, applying culinary ingredients to the brewery, which is now in the top 20 small breweries in the United States. Dogfish Head also has spawned two restaurants in coastal Delaware.

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