I was excited when I heard the news that Kansas City area chefs nabbed three semifinalist nominations for the coveted James Beard Award, known in culinary circles as the Oscar of the food world.
The nominations covered two categories, including Best Chef — Midwest, which honors chefs who “set new or consistent standards of excellence.” The Midwest category covers chefs from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri.
The two nominees from Kansas City are Ted Habiger of Room 39 and Howard Hanna of the Rieger Hotel Grill Exchange. Colby Garrelts of Bluestem and Rye captured the prize in that category last year, and Michael Smith and Debbie Gold were co-winners in the past, so Kansas City has shown well here.
I’ll have much more on Hanna and Habiger later, but today I want to concentrate on Kansas City’s third nominee, Nick Wesemann, the pastry chef at The American Restaurant. Wesemann is nominated in the Outstanding Pastry Chef Category.
As semi-finalists, Habiger and Hanna have put themselves in the top 20 chefs in the aforementioned eight Midwest states, no small achievement. However, Wesemann’s nomination is even more impressive since the pastry chef category isn’t subdivided into regions. It’s national, meaning Wesemann can be considered among the top 20 pastry chefs in the country.
“Professionally, it is a chance for me to be regarded alongside some of the top pastry chefs in the country. These are chefs that I have always looked up to or learned from, who have techniques or ideas that I have tried to emulate into my own work. It’s a great opportunity to bring more recognition to the city and all of the great people working in the industry here in Kansas City,” Wesemann shared.
“Personally, it is just fantastic to see that here, in my little section of the kitchen, in the middle of the Midwest, that people from around the country are taking notice of the work I am doing and the food I am sending out on a daily basis. It’s always been a dream of mine, albeit one that has stayed in the back of my head. There are a lot of great pastry chefs out there, and I never thought I would make it onto the list among them. It’s humbling and exciting at the same time,” Wesemann said.
Like many great Pastry Chefs, Wesemann is part chef, part artist. His creations are as beautiful and creative as they are delicious. Also, like most greats chef, pastry or otherwise, Wesemann’s love of food goes back to his childhood where he often assisted his grandmother in the kitchen, helping her make delicate cream-puff shells and profiteroles, or whipping egg whites for meringues that would top the pies in her Nevada, Mo., bakery.
Wesemann, a Harrisonville native, later moved to Kansas City to train at the acclaimed Johnson County Community College culinary arts program. He was a member of college’s award-winning culinary team, traveling the world while gaining both confidence and knowledge.
After he graduated, Wesemann hooked up as a line cook at The American Restaurant, learning butchery, sauce making and the intensity of a saute station. It wasn’t long before Wesemann was moved to a newly opened pastry position at the American and there his career began to take flight.
For Wesemann, the nomination is recognition for hard work and a job well done, a job he takes very, very seriously.
“The pastry chef is responsible for the conclusion of the meal, the last thing they will remember, so they need to execute food that is going to surprise the guest and make them leave with a smile on their face. Creativity is the pastry chef’s strongest asset, and they need to use that asset to create food that is both unique and approachable,” Wesemann said.
“I like to create and unleash joy with my desserts,” Wesemann said. Nothing would be more joyous than for him to make the list of five James Beard finalists. After that, who knows, maybe this Midwest kid with a sweet tooth and a ton of talent will bring home the Oscar.
Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons, or nearly 300 half-hour episodes produced on six continents. Eckert is also an avid wine collector and aficionado, having amassed a personal wine cellar of some 2,000 bottles.