For all its challenges, Baltimore is still where it’s cooking | COMMENTARY

FILE - Steve Chu of Ekiben is in the running for a James Beard award for best chef in the Mid-Atlantic region.

On Jan. 25, the James Beard Foundation announced its annual award semifinalists. Often described as the Oscars of the culinary scene, a Beard Award can make or break a chef. Baltimore fared exceptionally well with three contenders. Two were for best chef in the Mid-Atlantic region: Chris Amendola of Foraged and Steve Chu of Ekiben. And Charleston, a frequent contender in fine dining awards, was listed for “Outstanding Hospitality,” a category sponsored, oddly enough, by American Airlines.

All are unquestionably worthy, particularly for those of us who have a weakness for Chef Chu’s tempura broccoli, which, readers may recall, he and Ekiben co-founder Ephrem Abebe took on the road two years ago to create for a terminally ill woman in Vermont. Hey, Chef Chu, you had us at “tempura,” but it’s nice to know Asian Fusion cuisine has a lot of soul, too. There’s something else to be observed about the nominees. They are all based in Baltimore. Not Towson. Not Ellicott City or Westminster. Not Glen Burnie or Elkridge. You want to eat cutting-edge food, you venture into a city.


We observe this with confidence because it’s exceedingly obvious. Look at all the Beard nominees and they are inevitably located in urban centers from Seattle to Los Angeles, from Miami to Boston. Oh, there are exceptions, of course. Many regard The French Laundry in Yountville, California, (population: 3,360) to be the nation’s finest (including, apparently, Gov. Gavin Newsom, who was caught attending a fancy dinner party there during the peak of the COVID pandemic in 2020). And that’s not to dismiss suburban restaurants. Not all are chains and/or fast casual, but, let’s face it, a lot of them are. They are surely convenient and affordable but they’ll also never be mistaken for a Beard Award winner. Cities are the place for experimentation, for artistry, for adventure. They have an energy, a youthful spirit, a fine dining tradition, a special “night on the town” feel.

This quality extends far beyond the dinner table. As much as Baltimore is seen these days for its many shortcomings, it’s easy to forget that the city remains the heart of a metropolitan area of 2.8 million souls, the nation’s 21st largest. The region’s cultural center is in the city, from the Baltimore Museum of Art and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to the Reginald F. Lewis Museum and National Aquarium. The region’s history is centered here, too, from Fort McHenry to the Washington Monument. And that’s not even counting all the fun stuff to do — including attending Orioles games at Oriole Park at Camden Yards or and Ravens games at M&T Bank Stadium or attending concerts at the new CFG Bank Arena (including Bruce Springsteen on April 7) — or the city’s world-class health care at Johns Hopkins Hospital.


Not long ago, some tech leaders sat down with us to explain why they’d like to have offices in Baltimore. Because office space is affordable? No. For special tax deals? Possibly, but that’s not what they claimed. They said they wanted to be here because it helped them recruit new employees. Young people from a technology background want to live in a city where things are happening, where public transit is available and not be stuck in traffic or in some suburban court far away from nice restaurants and bars, live music venues and entertainment. Baltimore offers that.

Does that sound like cheerleading? Good, because maybe some of that is needed. As we look to find ways to reduce this city’s homicide rate, to address its chronic housing woes and vacancies, to provide better economic opportunities and education for its neglected communities, to address the generations of damage done by racism and redlining, we must not lose sight of what we still have. There is reason for optimism at a time when Maryland has elected its first Black governor, an enthusiastic Baltimore supporter, and extraordinary cultural institutions like the BMA and BSO are also now in the hands of individuals of color. Baltimore is not an obligation holding others back, it’s the best asset Maryland has to help the region and state grow and prosper in the years ahead. Cheers to that.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.