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Immigrants have helped change how America eats. Now they dominate top culinary awards

"Dumplings are my obsession," says chef "Nok" Chutatip Suntaranon of Kalaya, a Thai restaurant in Philadelphia.
Joel Rose
"Dumplings are my obsession," says chef "Nok" Chutatip Suntaranon of Kalaya, a Thai restaurant in Philadelphia.

Chef "Nok" Chutatip Suntaranon can trace the flavors on her menu all the way back to her childhood, in the city of Trang in southern Thailand.

"I grew up helping my mom making curry paste to sell in her little shop in the market," Suntaranon says. "So I knew all that recipe by heart."

What Suntaranon did not know was how diners in Philadelphia would react when she opened her restaurant Kalaya four years ago, with an uncompromising approach to the flavors and the heat of southern Thai cooking.

But Kalaya has thrived, moving from its original location with 35 seats to an airy, sun-dappled space that holds up to 300. And Suntaranon has been nominated three times for an award from the James Beard Foundation — the so-called "Oscars of the food world," which are widely considered the top prize in the U.S. culinary industry.

"I know my food is good," Suntaranon says. "Once we present it with authenticity — just like being true to yourself and the flavors, I think people would feel the honesty about it."

Immigrants have long been the backbone of restaurant kitchens. Now they're winning recognition at the highest levels of the industry.

The James Beard Foundation awards for restaurants are set for Monday in Chicago, with roughly 75 finalistsvying for the chef and baker awards. More than half are immigrants or children of immigrants from all over the globe.

To some extent, that reflects how the awards themselves are changing in response to questions about diversity. But it also points to a broader shift in what chefs want to cook — and what diners want to eat.

In Kalaya's kitchen, Suntaranon shows off the newest item on the menu: dumplings shaped like little birds. The beaks are made with a sliver of red paper. The pungent filling starts with steamed cod fish that's pounded into a paste with palm sugar, garlic, shallot, radish and cilantro.

Even Suntaranon's own mother was surprised at how enthusiastically American diners responded to her food.

"I make what we eat at home," Suntaranon explains to her mother. "And she sometimes asked me, 'did farang like it?,' " using the Thai word that translates roughly as foreigner. " 'Can farang eat spicy?' And I said, 'you will be surprised!' "

Chef "Nok" Chutatip Suntaranon with her Pomeranian, Titi, in the dining room at her restaurant Kalaya in Philadelphia.
/ Joel Rose
Joel Rose
Chef "Nok" Chutatip Suntaranon with her Pomeranian, Titi, in the dining room at her restaurant Kalaya in Philadelphia.

The awards have been refocused after reported concerns about controversial lack of diversity

Immigrants have always been well-represented in the James Beard awards, but not to this extent.

The James Beard Foundation canceled its annual awards in 2020, citing the COVID-19 pandemic as the official reason. But reportedly, there were also concerns about a lack of diversity among the top vote-getters.

When the awards returned last year after an internal audit, they looked very different.

"We've refocused on what is the purpose of these awards," says Dawn Padmore, the vice president of awards at the James Beard Foundation. "It's to award excellence. And excellence can look like anything, right?"

The mission of the awards has shifted, Padmore says, to align more closely with the foundation's mantra of "good food for good." The awards have added a focus on racial and gender equity and sustainability. And the voting process has changed too, Padmore says, with a broader mix of voices.

Last year's winners included Cristina Martinez, an advocate for immigrants' rights and an undocumented immigrant herself, who won best chef in the Mid-Atlantic region for her restaurants in Philadelphia. While Mashama Bailey took home the prize for Outstanding Chef for her work at The Grey, a Southern restaurant in Savannah, Ga.

Still, Padmore thinks there's another a second explanation for why immigrant chefs from beyond Europe are doing so well: the food.

"There's an appetite, I think, in terms of consumers to try these different kinds of cuisine," she says. "I also think a lot of chefs, maybe the younger generation, feel like they can just express their culture, their background in a more direct manner."

Chefs like 29-year-old Serigne Mbaye, who's a finalist for Best Emerging Chef at his restaurant Dakar NOLA in New Orleans. Mbaye was born in Harlem, but he spent much of his childhood in Senegal. "It was there I learned about my culture and my cuisine," he says.

Mbaye cooked in a succession of fine dining kitchens before opening his own restaurant, which explores the culinary connections between West Africa and the southern U.S. He says he's glad to see more recognition for immigrant chefs — particularly from Africa.

"People cannot deny our existence, you know? It's great that it's happening now. But I think that it should have been happening for years," Mbaye says.

Immigrants are changing what America eats

It's not just big coastal cities and foodie destinations where immigrant chefs are thriving.

The James Beard award finalists this year include a Laotian restaurant in Oklahoma City, a Lebanese chef in Salt Lake City, and a Peruvian restaurant in West Hartford, Connecticut.

"Our food is traditional, and they can have a little bit of Peru here in Connecticut," says Macarena Ludena, the head chef at Coracora, which is nominated for Outstanding Restaurant. Her parents opened Coracora in 2011, naming it after the small town in the mountains of Peru where they had lived. Ludena says it's still difficult to get the right ingredients in New England.

"It's called aji amarillo and aji panca, the kind of chili peppers we need to start our cooking," she says. "If we don't have the spices, it's not going to be authentic Peruvian food."

Now this restaurant housed in a former McDonald's is famous for its ceviche and lomo saltado. The governor of Connecticut stopped by to celebrate the restaurant's James Beard award nomination in April.

This year's award nominees also include Veronika Gerasimova, the owner and sole employee at Veronika's Pastry Shop in Billings, Montana.

"Billings doesn't have lots of foreigners," Gerasimova says. "But Billings is hungry for cool stuff."

Gerasimova is originally from Uzbekistan. When she moved to Billings in 1999, she couldn't find a place that made the kind of Russian, Eastern European and French pastries that she liked. So in 2017, she quit her day job and opened one.

"I love making puff pastry. So croissants, danishes, different kinds of tartlets," she says. "I just do something people cannot find in Billings, you know?"

Now they can. It's one small way that immigrants are still changing what America eats.

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Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.