Local chef a James Beard nominee

by Anna Purdy

Justin Girouard, chef and owner of The French Press, has been nominated for a 2012 James Beard Award.

Justin Girouard, chef and owner of The French Press, has been nominated for a 2012 James Beard Award.

To say this is "kind of a big deal" is like saying a tablespoon of cayenne in your mouth is "a little bit hot." The James Beard Awards are equivalent to the Oscars, except of course tastier. The categories are vast - both the food and beverage sides of a restaurant are noted and best chefs are broken up by U.S. region. Girourard is nominated in the "Best Chef: South" category.

This same honor was given last year to another Louisiana chef, Stephen Stryjewski of Cochon in New Orleans. Past Louisiana winners have included Cochon's founder Donald Link and also Susan Spicer, John Besh and more. With national eyes turned toward Lafayette it isn't a leap to assume we can expect more nominees from our side of the Atchafalaya in the coming years.

Girourard is a fairly new chef. He began working in Crescent City eateries about t10 years ago and after getting his feet wet opened The French Press on Vermilion in downtown Lafayette two years ago. With its bricked walls constantly packed with the salivating masses it's easy to see why he was nominated - Girourard takes typical Cajun and Southern fare and turns it on its ear a bit, enough to be innovative and not enough to alienate the grandparents who grew up eating foods made the same way. Even our beloved downtown fireman statue points toward The French Press.

The fun part? Most people are knowingly nominated by a colleague, restaurant manager or friend. Not Girourard. He doesn't know who put him up for the biggest culinary award so far in his career, although some of us outside his restaurant have theories and guesses.

Whether Girourard wins will be discovered May 7 along with the rest of the nominees in New York City where they will be fêted over a weekend. The awards are announced at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. Since 1990 the awards have singled out the best chefs, restaurants, bars, writers and others in North America. James Beard was a singer and actor who turned to catering in the 1940s after moving to New York City. This led to the publication of his first cookbook. In 1955 he founded the James Beard Cooking School and went on to become one of the first nationally known chefs, bringing particularly French and also Chinese influences to American households. This established foundation seeks to honor what Beard began.

Follow the James Beard Foundation Twitter feed here for minute-by-minute announcements May 7 or check them out for great recipes, links and interviews.