The James Beard Awards are the Academy Awards for the world of food, but they don't announce the nominees on the Today Show.
They send e-mails.
And if you are a busy chef, like Cindy Wolf of Baltimore's posh Charleston restaurant, you don't have time to check your e-mail, and it might be ages before you get around to seeing the printout left for you by a staff member.
"It was a Saturday morning and I was at my desk, on the phone, setting up an interview and I was in a hurry to get back to the stove," Wolf said. "I pulled my mail out of my mailbox and there was an e-mail addressed just to 'Charleston Restaurant,' and it said something about James Beard."
She quickly concluded her phone call and read the e-mail over carefully, but was too excited to comprehend its message.
"I said to one of my staff, 'I can't seem to concentrate. Does this say what I think it says?' "
Wolf has been nominated by the prestigious James Beard Foundation as "Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic," along with four others from Philadelphia and the Washington area. It is the first Beard nomination for Wolf, and the first for a Baltimore chef or restaurant.
"The nomination in itself is a very prestigious acknowledgment of the fact that Cindy has really helped put Baltimore on the map," said Barbara Fairchild, editor of Bon Appetit magazine and a member of the board of trustees of the Beard Foundation. (She does not vote in the awards.)
"When people travel, they will seek out these places," she said.
Once Wolf had digested the news of her nomination, the first thing she did was call her husband and partner, Tony Foreman, whose vision, along with Wolf's skills in the kitchen, has transformed Baltimore dining. In addition to Charleston, the two have opened Pazo, a high-end tapas restaurant, and Petit Louis, a French bistro in Roland Park. A fourth restaurant is planned for the fall.
Next this daughter and granddaughter of Mennonite butchers, who has wanted to own a restaurant since she was a little girl, called her parents.
She lists the opening night of Charleston - the coming-true of that dream - as her most wonderful professional moment. But telling her parents about the Beard nomination is right up there.
"I am so glad my parents are around for this," said Wolf, who has invited Robert and Jean Wolf to join her in New York on Monday night for the announcement of the winners. "I would like my father to see me win."
The only Marylander who has ever won a Beard award, according to Melanie Young of the foundation, is Monkton wine expert Robert Parker, who won for Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional in 1998.
Foreman, who is his wife's biggest booster, said the nomination is a validation of Wolf's devotion to her customers. "She doesn't have a cooking show and, no, she doesn't have a cookbook. But she cooks for her guests and somebody noticed."
The James Beard Awards, now in their 16th year, are named for the legendary cook, teacher and author, and the ceremony is held in New York.
There are 65 categories, including a new award for best food Web-cast; there is an Outstanding Chef award, a Rising Star Chef of the Year and awards for restaurants.
The eight regional Best Chef awards might best be compared to Best Supporting Actor, recognizing significant talent by location and voted on by the chefs' culinary neighbors.
Wolf has made her mark by preparing low-country Southern foods with French technique in tasting-sized portions.
Pairing the food with the wine selections of Foreman, a Baltimore native, Charleston is a dining experience as comfortable as Baltimore but as sumptuous as any culinary destination in the country.
Once diners step inside the frosted-glass doors of this Harbor East restaurant, they are in the pampering care of Charleston's highly trained staff.
The rooms are decorated in soft autumnal tones, each a little different but as comfortable as someone's living room. Wolf stands at the wide entrance to her open kitchen, checking each dish before it is served.
Her tasting menu is one a diner can wander through at will - there is no requirement that you choose one item from each course - and the perfectly composed miniature portions are so rich and full of flavor that Wolf's guests leave with the "sense of being satisfied" that is important to her.
A small helping of Carolina squab sits atop a mound of creamy polenta, a fresh, just-roasted plum garnishing the succulent sauce. A fried green-tomato sandwich with lobster-and-lump-crab hash - the dish Wolf says she most enjoys preparing - has just a hint of curry.
The experience comes at a price: the bill for two, with four courses and tasting wines to match, can easily top $250.
Wolf's success, Bon Appetit's Fairchild said, is a testament to her hard work "and the fact that she respects the area's ingredients and enhances them and gives them interesting twists. Her food has a familiarity, but it is also very modern."
Jerry Pellegrino, a friend and competitor at Corks restaurant in Federal Hill, said he has his fingers crossed that Wolf will win, though she is up against four chefs who have each been nominated several times. "Cindy has always been very ingredient-driven," said Pellegrino. "She is always looking for the best product out there and that drives her menu."
Foreman scours the local farmers' markets twice a week and Wolf has her favorite suppliers from the Carolinas. Her menu changes regularly, reflecting the seasons and what she finds.
For example, she spent much of the winter experimenting with truffles because she was able to find them in an economical quantity. Her sharp pencil with a grocery budget along with her cooking skill has made her a success as a restaurateur.
Tina Ujlaki, executive food editor of Food & Wine magazine, called that "a rare combination."
"The nomination alone makes her a member of a very established and esteemed club," Ujlaki said.
Ann Wilder, founder and owner of Baltimore's Vanns Spices, is a Charleston regular. "It is where I take guests I want to impress," she said.
"But I am prejudiced," she said. "I grew up in South Carolina and I ate in Charleston on Sundays because my father knew it was the only place you could get decent food in the state.
"I love her fried oysters. They are done in cornmeal, which is the way they ought to be done. She does everything right," said Wilder, who is a sponsor of the James Beard House and who once took classes with the legendary teacher.
While Wolf is loath to leave her kitchen - "I love to cook and I love to make food for people to eat" - Foreman has made sure that Charleston is known beyond Baltimore's borders, that the public knows Baltimore has a powerhouse of a restaurant to try.
"The real proof is that they deliver the goods," said Cynthia Glover, former food and wine editor of Baltimore magazine and a former James Beard judge. "We live in the shadow of Philadelphia and Washington, and we are an overlooked culinary experience. Cindy and Tony are changing that."
What makes Wolf a notable chef is not trend-riding, Fairchild said, but a profound love of the craft, as well as a reputation as a tough and exacting master in the kitchen.
"Cindy is a really hard worker," Fairchild said. "She didn't go out and try something else. She stayed in the restaurant and concentrated on that. The nomination is a testament to that dedication."
41 years ago in Richmond, Va.
Chef/co-owner of Charleston; co-owner of Petit Louis and Pazo with husband Tony Foreman
A business major at the University of Evansville in Indiana, she quit before earning a degree because she realized she wanted to be a chef. She graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
Was asked to be the opening chef of Georgia Brown's in Washington.
Harbor East neighborhood of Baltimore, her husband's hometown.
She prepared lunch for Julia Child and has cooked three times at the James Beard House in New York, a rite of passage for the best chefs.
Zagat's top-rated restaurant in Baltimore-Annapolis area, 2005; "Five Star Diamond Restaurant Award," June 2003, American Academy of Hospitality Sciences; "Four Stars," 2001 and 2004, Mobil Travel Guide.
Favorite food to eat:
Her own macaroni and cheese, often on the Charleston menu.
Also in the running
Anyone can be nominated for the 62 James Beard Foundation awards. But the ballot is determined by a 17-member panel of notable critics and food writers, plus 25 panelists in each of the eight regions who have no commercial interest in any of the nominees.
The winners are chosen by a vote of these panelists and previous winners.
Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck and Jean-Louis Palladin have won Beard awards. Robert Parker, winner of the Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional in 1998, is the only Maryland winner.
Cindy Wolf's competition for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic this year includes:
chef of Striped Bass in Philadelphia. He was the Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year last year. He is famous for his Philadelphia Cheese Skate: braised short ribs, mushroom and caramelized pearl onions inside the moist folds of skate, encrusted with bread crumbs and with a swirl of parmesan cream streaked with homemade hot sauce.
owner/ chef of BreadLine, a Washington sandwich shop. He's considered the man who brought artisan bread to Washington. This is his second Beard nomination.
of Maestro in the Ritz-Carlton in Tyson's Corner in McLean, Va. This is his fourth nomination. (Wolf took the Charleston staff to dine at Maestro during her restaurant's renovation last July.)
chef and owner of Obelisk, a Washington trattoria. Obelisk's fixed-price tasting menu still is considered one of the best Washington has to offer. He has been nominated five times.