The subject of the 2018 James Beard Foundation annual awards ceremony, which unfolded on May 7 at the Lyric Opera House in Chicago, was “RISE,” a theme dedicated to honoring the collective spirit of communities and the power of food. “Whether championing causes, committing to values, speaking up for those who can’t be heard, or cooking their hearts out, our food community rises to meet the challenges, to complete the tasks, and to make this world a better, more delicious place for everyone,” reads the James Beard Foundation website. And one Denver chef, in particular—Alex Seidel—rose valiantly to the occasion, securing a sweet victory in the Best Chef: Southwest category for his cooking mastery at Mercantile Dining & Provision, which he owns, along with Fruition, Fruition Farms Creamery, and Füdmill.
“It’s been a crazy, long journey,” says Seidel, a six-time James Beard nominee. “Getting that award was really, really special to me, my team and Melissa, my wife, especially given how much she’s sacrificed and supported me.”
Seidel admits that he never believed he would win, and he had no acceptance speech prepared. “I tend to wing it and speak from the heart,” he confesses, adding that he was “super nervous looking out into a crowd that I really look up to.” As is customary with unrehearsed acceptance speeches, Seidel concedes that he forgot to issue a few shout-outs to those who helped catapult him to the winners’ circle, namely Jimmy Warren, the chief cheesemaker and backbone of Fruition Farms Creamery; Dan Skvarca, “my best friend and partner at Mercantile;” and Jesse Marsch, who, Seidel says, gave him the money to open Fruition. “Without Jesse, none of this would be possible.”
Aside from winning the James Beard gold, Seidel says that the highlight of his time in Chicago was meeting chef and restaurateur Rick Bayless, a fellow James Beard Award recipient, who hosted the James Beard after-party at his restaurant Leña Brava, where Seidel and his wife were nearly turned away at the door—and would have been had Bayless not been lurking behind it.
Fresh off a cooking stint at Girl and the Goat, where Seidel cooked a lamb dish with fava bean hummus and Fruition Farms Creamery feta, he and Melissa didn’t arrive to Leña Brava until well after 2am, and Seidel was worried that Bayless, who had sent him an email invitation weeks before, would be long gone. Instead, Seidel says, “Rick was right there at the door to greet us, and he congratulated me and gave us a shot of mezcal.” Seidel admits that the rest of the night was a whirlwind, but meeting Bayless, he notes, was “a really, really cool moment, especially since I’ve looked up to him for so long.”
Still, while the awards ceremony and post-party were memorable, an instrumental force at Mercantile was missing: Matt Vawter, Mercantile’s co-owner and chef de cuisine, was there for the pre-pomp and circumstance but had to hop a flight back to Denver prior to the awards ceremony because his wife, Christy, was in labor. With just a few hours to spare, Vawter made it home in time to witness the birth of his son, Blase James Vawter. A few hours later, he learned of Seidel’s triumph. “Alex has pushed me inside and outside of the kitchen for a long time now, and I feel fortunate to have enjoyed the ride that has been our journey and growth for the last decade,” Vawter wrote on his Facebook page.
Winning a James Beard Foundation award is the “icing on the cake,” says Seidel, a chef who has amassed numerous accolades, including a Food & Wine magazine Best New Chef nod in 2010. But Seidel, who’s unfailingly humble, realizes that the recognition for his achievements comes with a price. “Matt and I always talk about how winning something like a James Beard award adds a lot of pressure,” he acknowledges. “I’ve gotten hundreds and hundreds of congratulatory messages and phone calls, some from people who don’t live here and are coming to Denver just to have dinner at Mercantile, and I know that having that medallion carries a lot of weight and comes with a lot of responsibility to uphold our standards.” Seidel likens the impending scrutiny—it’s inevitable—to being under a microscope, but says that he and his team are excited to showcase his restaurants, as well as Denver, to guests. “Winning the Beard award brings validation to Colorado’s dining scene—a scene that’s been growing for years because of contributions from so many people—and that feels awesome,” Seidel says.
And while Seidel is one to deflect praise, Melissa won’t allow her husband to divert all the credit: “Alex has doubted himself for a long time even though I’ve been telling him how good he is for the last decade. He inspires people, and maybe now that he won this award, he’ll actually believe it, and I can get off my soapbox.”
Seidel was the only Colorado chef that waltzed away with a James Beard medal, but two other Colorado restaurants were finalists: Frasca Food and Wine was in the pool for Outstanding Restaurant and the Little Nell, in Aspen, was a contender in the Outstanding Wine Program category. Additionally, Shears Adkins Rockmore Architects, a Denver-based firm, was a finalist in the Outstanding Restaurant & Design division for The Preacher’s Son, a restaurant in Bentonville, Arkansas. To see the full list of winners, visit the James Beard Foundation website.
By Lori Midson