The music industry has the Grammys. The film industry has the Oscars. The literary, science and economics communities have the Nobel Prize. The culinary community has the Beard Awards.
Locally, nominations are being called for Wilmington’s very own fine dining establishment, manna. Though the James Beard Foundation’s website (www.jamesbeard.org) notes anyone can enter a nominee (categories include restaurant, chef, books, broadcast media, journalism, restaurant design, etc. and so forth), manna restaurateur Billy Mellon says he has learned someone is nominating manna in the category of restaurant and chefs, including head chef Jameson Chavez and pastry chef Rebeca Alvarado-Paredes.
“I’m not sure I am at liberty to divulge the [exact] source,” Mellon tells. “We had been recommended by guests and friends in the culinary community but, from how I understand it works, it is best to be recommended by a JBF recipient. It’s a ‘club,’ so you need to be acknowledged from within.”
Mellon opened manna in 2010 after years of working in the restaurant industry. His knowledge of fine-dining comes from his dedication to establishments like Port Land Grille and Tango du Chat (which once was located where manna now resides at 123 Princess St.). Working at each helped mold his current restaurant.
“I wanted to create a place where hospitality and deliciousness were paramount,” Mellon tells. “I wanted to be proud of what we were building, and wanted to continue to push myself and the team upward with respect to that ideology. I’ve known we have JBF-worthy pieces here but that was never a goal.”
Chavez came into the head-chef position at manna from Las Cruces, NM. In fact, when Mellon opened the restaurant, Chavez was the sous chef but took on the head toque within a short time period.
“Frankly, I didn’t know Jameson but I liked him from the start,” Mellon admits. “He’s very grounded and obviously a great cook who understands flavor and balance. I have found his personality—which is completely opposite of mine—to enhance our working relationship. He’s a very hard worker and he takes a lot of pride in what he is producing.”
Impromptu lunches of tamales, posole, ribs, and tacos rank high on some of Mellon’s fave items from Chavez, thought quite different from the elevated contemporary fare he often dishes, like braised and pan-roasted octopus, grilled royal trumpet mushrooms, cauliflower puree, black olive aioli, and almonds. “I really enjoy my post-shift meal when I say, ‘surprise me,’ and Jameson never disappoints,” Mellon tells.
The shy and timid Alavrado-Paredes fleshed out the manna team—unbeknownst to Mellon that’s what he needed or even wanted. Alvarado-Paredes sent over a Facebook message asking if a position was open in their “pastry department” a few years ago.
“I laughed aloud … ‘pastry department!’ Mellon remembers. “We didn’t have any ‘departments.’ But we looked at her portfolio and were immediately attracted to her skillset.”
Since hiring Alvarado-Paredes, manna’s reputation has grown exponentially because of her delicate endings to every Chavez plate. Mellon calls her work “art.”
“Everything is completely divine,” he praises. “She does what she wants, how she wants . . . She could work anywhere. We are lucky to have her. . . . We sell so many desserts because her reputation is huge. It is impossible to have the truest manna experience without Rebeca getting the last word.”
Between running dinner Tuesday through Sundays, the team stays quite busy—starting at the bar with a delectable libations menu, thanks to Ian Murray, all the way to wait staff’s incredible attention to detail to fun, adventurous dinners and succulent, sweet spots of desserts.
“I throw a lot at them: multiple special menus, off-site obligations, menu changes, and we have been extremely fortunate to have maintained a steady volume of guests,” Mellon tells. “So, they have to produce at a high pace and continue to execute on the plate.”
Maintaining focus and each being even-tempered has helped them in an oft-rushed industry of serving food to the public. Their boss calls them poised and graceful. “Even as they are relatively young, and it always seems to amaze me because those traits are usually associated with people with tons of experience,” Mellon explains. “They are very humble. I don’t think they know how good they are. When we get comments, awards and accolades, they remain grounded.”
manna is no stranger to receiving accolades either. They secured two AAA Travel 4 diamond awards, one in 2015 and one this year. In fact, they were the first to ever receive the validation in Wilmington. More so, to win two means consistently doing good work. “In my eyes, [the second one] validated the first one,” Mellon says.
Folks who wish to nominate the restaurant or chefs can log onto www.jamesbeard.org and click on the call for entries to hand type their chosen nominees for the 2017 awards. The official winner will be announced in May 2017 at the annual gala in New York.
“I am pretty new to this, but this [round] is more of a recommended platform where I suspect other people ‘write in’ who they feel are worthy,” Mellon says. “Then I think the JBF looks into the website and tallies votes, and maybe they ask, ‘Who is this Jameson Chavez’ garnering a lot of support?”
A JBF judging panel usually visits the restaurant unannounced to conclude the process of nominees, finalists, and in the end determine a winner. The only other nominee from Wilmington, NC, to make it onto the JBF ballot is Chef Keith Rhodes, owner of Catch, back in 2011. On Dec. 8 chefs from PinPoint Dean Neff and Lydia Clopton will be headed to the James Beard House in NYC to cook a special menu with other NC-based chefs in a “NC Christmas” (tickets: $175; http://bit.ly/2faHvYK.).
Mellon has worked with both Rhodes and Neff and Clopton, most recently in the foundation of 40 Eats—a collective of local chefs and restaurateurs from Wilmington who host dinners and other food-based events to sustain buying local from agricultural vendors. 40 Eats gives back to the community at large by hosting fundraisers, too. Other 40 Eats members include Port Land Grille’s Anne Steketee and Shawn Wellersdick, James Doss of Pembroke’s and Rx, Tommy Mills of Little Pond Catering, and Christi Ferretti and Kathy Webb of Pine Valley Market.
“It’s something I consider a viable tool to encourage people to recognize that we have an exciting food scene here, and we’ll continue to do our part in making that statement as honest as possible,” Mellon tells.