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James Beard Awards semifinalist proud to be part of Kansas City’s restaurant scene

02/27/2014 1:00 PM

02/26/2014 9:37 PM

Kansas City’s food community got great news last week when it was announced that three local chefs had been named semifinalists for a James Beard award.

I’ve already profiled

The American Restaurant’s Nick Wesemann, tabbed in the Best Pastry Chef category, and Ted Habiger of Room 39

, named as a semifinalist in the Best Chef: Midwest competition.

Today, a visit with a second chef nominated in that category, Howard Hanna, executive chef and co-owner of the Rieger Hotel Grill Exchange.

“The James Beard Awards mean a lot to me, and winning one is a lifetime career goal of mine,” Hanna said. “Making the semifinalist list is an honor and it means a lot because it confirms that we’re doing well and are on the right track.”

Pleased with the honor, Hanna is also pragmatic about the nomination.

“It’s the long list,” he said. “There are 20 chefs from each region and there is another big step to take to get the actual nomination, then a tight competition to someday, hopefully, win the award. Basically, making the list feels great and the support I’ve gotten about it feels even better. But, it really just makes me want to work harder.”

Hanna’s a Manhattan, Kan., native who kicked around in local restaurants in Manhattan and Lawrence before getting serious about things and moving to New York to enroll in the Culinary Institute of America in 2001.

Guess what? The kid had game, graduating first in his class then landing a position at Danny Meyer’s outstanding Union Square Café. Ironically, it was there that Hanna’s path first crossed with Habiger who quickly became his friend along with boss and mentor.

“Being recognized alongside Ted feels pretty special,” Hanna said. “We met and worked together in NYC, and when we both ended up back here, it seemed completely natural to work together again. Ted gave me my first sous chef job and the opportunity to help open Room 39 with him and Andy Sloan. That was invaluable experience for me. I grew a lot in my time there, and Ted has been a great friend and source of support for me ever since.”

After leaving New York, Hanna took some time to explore some of the great wine and food regions of the worlds in California, Italy, and France, soaking it in, staying off the beaten path, and in his own words, “eating like crazy.”

Sated, and armed with a lifetime’s worth of food and wine experiences, Hanna wound up in Kansas City in 2003. After his stints at 40 Sardines and Room 39, Hanna got his first executive chef position at The River Club, which he invigorated with a new style of cuisine.

Finally, Hanna had the chance to own, or at least co-own, his own restaurant as he opened The Rieger with partner, co-owner and mixologist Ryan Maybee. It was a dream come true. Hanna says he’s proud of what they’re doing at The Rieger and proud to be part of an exciting food and restaurant scene in Kansas City.

“We have a lot of really talented people here and a lot of great places opening up,” Hanna said. “And now, we have a growing list of winners who have come before, so young cooks are in the fortunate position of getting to work with people like Debbie Gold, Michael Smith, Celina Tio and Colby Garrelts. I’m really happy with the culinary scene here and expect it to keep getting better.”

Hanna’s travels have taken him around the world, but it’s right here in Kansas City that Hanna strikes to create unique, rich and flavorful cuisine using local and seasonal ingredients and featuring the proud men and women who produce them.

“I want to keep pushing to make the Rieger a great and important restaurant, the restaurant I always dreamed of opening,” Hanna said. “Whatever happens with this, we have a lot of room for growth and a lot of work to do.”

Here’s wishing all three of Kansas City’s James Beard nominees the best of luck. It’s recognition well deserved.

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.

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