Elizabeth Ronzetti and Adam Kopels, chefs at 18 Bay Restaurant, were named semifinalists for a James Beard award in the very competitive “Best Chef-Northeast” category last Thursday.
They say when you score a touchdown, you should act like you’ve been there before. But Ms. Ronzetti and Mr. Kopels have not been there before, and neither has any other chef currently working on Shelter Island.
“It is thrilling and stunning to be included on such a prestigious list,” Ms. Ronzetti said. “Really extraordinary.”
The awards are a very big deal in the world of food. James Beard was a cook, educator and author who became a champion of American cuisine in the 20th century.
After his death in 1985, the James Beard Foundation was established in his honor.
In 2018, there were 23,000 entries for the James Beard Restaurant and Chef awards, and 20 semifinalists were chosen for each of 10 geographical regions.
Finalists will be chosen by a vote of about 600 people, about half of whom are previous winners. The finalists will be announced on March 14 and the winners at a May awards ceremony that has been called the Oscars of food.
Ms. Ronzetti and Mr. Kopels are partners in work and life, joined, he said, “at the hip.” But when a friend called to tell them they had been nominated, Ms. Ronzetti had just left their Southold house to visit her mother and was driving through a wireless reception-deficient zone around Wading River.
“I saw that Adam called me five times, and I thought this can’t be good. When I reached him he just said, ‘So, we were nominated.’ And I said, ‘Yeah. Right.’ Then I went in the house and told my mother, and she said, ‘A James Beard award, what’s that?’”
A James Beard nomination for a restaurant or chef this far east of New York City is exceedingly rare. A search of past nominees turned up only one, Gerry Hayden, the late, revered chef at North Fork Table and Inn in Southold who was both a nominee and semifinalist.
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, a successful food writer with several James Beard awards for journalism, is the older sister of Mr. Kopels’ childhood friend Alex, and Mr. Kopels said she was a big influence on him growing up. He beamed as he described hearing how happy Dara was to learn about the nomination. “All of a sudden I was 14-years-old again, trying to live up to Dara.”
They didn’t have long to revel in the nomination before turning to preparations for a night of diners. “We are so hands-on,” said Ms. Ronzetti, a pastry tube in one hand, about halfway through a batch of love letters — homemade pasta squares stuffed with a dab of caramelized parsnip that tasted like butterscotch.
Mr. Kopels dashed by looking for something, “Can’t talk, I’ve got a reduction going.” His wife asked him to describe how he cooked the parsnips. “Yes, well we are basically overcooking them. Very hot oven, the tips get burnt and when we remove the tips and process it, the result looks like caramel.”
When Ms. Ronzetti and Mr. Kopels moved their Bayville restaurant to Shelter Island in 2011, they created an Italian-inspired, four course chef’s menu that changes every week, and shows off the animals, fruits and vegetables that only the North Fork can produce.
The chefs are not afraid to push against tradition and customary restaurant practices, in favor of showcasing the best of what the land and sea produces here and now.
Ms. Ronzetti remembered the reaction when they began to use celtuce, a green vegetable that looks like a mash-up of asparagus spear and celery stalk. “We did a bluefish crudo with celtuce and everybody said, ‘What is celtuce?’ They were growing it at Sylvester Manor, and no one had heard of it.”
Terry Farm, Southold Fish Market, The Farm Beyond and Lathams are just a few of the local farms and fish-sellers who provide the inspiration for the couple’s ever-changing menus.
People who watch the James Beard nominees closely say this year’s semifinalusts skew to small and rural places more so than in years past. One of the nominees is Erin French, chef/owner of The Lost Kitchen in Freedom, Maine, a celebrated restaurant in a place that makes Shelter Island look urban.
Mr. Kopels said the attention is especially important to a restaurant that can feel isolated for much of the year. “It reminds me that this isn’t all for naught, and we’re not just going on mindlessly year after year.”
The James Beard nomination is an indication that Ms. Ronzetti and Mr. Kopels are up to something exceptional at 18 Bay.
“One of the things we have always wanted to do was to build something a little bit bigger than us; something of value,” he said. “We have a mantra in the kitchen, ‘There is an easier way to make dinner, we just don’t do it.’”