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The Eat Beat Dining around South Florida
with Mike Mayo

KYU, Zak the Baker among James Beard Award semifinalists

Wynwood, the hip Miami neighborhood known for its street art and infamous Zika-bearing mosquitoes, officially stamped itself a top national dining destination this week as the annual James Beard Awards semifinalists were announced.

Three Wynwood-based chefs and eateries were among the honorees, including KYU, the “Asian-inspired, wood-fired” restaurant that is among 27 vying for national Best New Restaurant honors. Zak Stern, aka Zak the Baker, is among 20 semifinalists in the Best Baker category. And for a second straight year, Bradley Kilgore, the chef-owner of Alter, is among 27 semifinalists in the Best Rising Star category for chefs under 30.

“We set out to create a menu and setting we’d enjoy, and I’m so glad that people are responding to it,” KYU chef Michael Lewis says. “I’m so proud of the team at KYU that has become like family. … I’m also excited to see Wynwood taking on a stronger culinary role locally and nationally. This neighborhood is so dynamic, and we are so happy to be a part of it.”

The rest of South Florida didn’t fare as well in the annual competition, run by the New York-based James Beard Foundation. Two other local chefs were named semifinalists in the regional Best Chef: South category, which covers Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Puerto Rico: Clay Conley, of Buccan in Palm Beach and Grato in West Palm Beach, and Deme Lomas, of Niu Kitchen in Miami.

Stephen Starr, the Philadelphia-based restaurateur who has several South Florida eateries, including Steak 954 in Fort Lauderdale, is a semifinalist in the Best Restaurateur category. Chef Justin Smillie, who recently opened an outpost of Upland in Miami Beach, is a regional Best Chef New York semifinalist for Upland in Manhattan.

Five finalists in each category are announced March 15. Winners are announced May 1 at this year’s awards ceremony in Chicago. But simply being named a semifinalist brings huge prestige, and lucrative opportunities, to chefs and restaurateurs.

“We were speechless when we heard the news … on our one-year anniversary no less,” Steven Haigh, general manager and partner at KYU, says.

It was a challenging year for Wynwood businesses because of last summer’s Zika scare, which triggered a federal travel warning and put a damper on visitors. The warning was lifted in late September.

It was also a roller coaster year for Stern, who suffered a mild stroke in March, then stormed back by moving his bakery to bigger new digs and opening a Glatt Kosher deli. Stern is an observant Jew who closes for Sabbath on Friday nights and Saturday. His exceptional bread is now carried by Whole Foods Markets across South Florida, and is used in dishes at quality restaurants such as KYU and One Door East in Fort Lauderdale.

KYU was the first restaurant I bestowed with a top four-star review last year. I wasn’t as enamored with Kilgore’s cooking when I visited Alter and his Brava at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts last fall.

mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Follow my food adventures on Instagram: @mikemayoeats. Sign up for my weekly dining newsletter at SouthFlorida.com/EatBeatMail.

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