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Cambridge Chefs Named James Beard Award Semifinalists

Three Cambridge chefs were named semifinalists for the James Beard Award for best chef in the Northeast region.
Three Cambridge chefs were named semifinalists for the James Beard Award for best chef in the Northeast region. By Marina Qu
By Elise D. Hawkins, Crimson Staff Writer

Three Cambridge chefs — Tracy Chang of PAGU, Conor Dennehy of Talulla, and Patricia Estorino of Gustazo Cuban Kitchen & Bar — were nominated as semifinalists for the James Beard Award for best chef in the Northeast region.

The three nominees for the award — among the most prestigious in the culinary world — spoke with The Crimson about their reactions to being nominated and their approach to cooking.

Chang, whose restaurant PAGU combines Japanese and Spanish cuisine, said that growing up around her grandmother’s Cambridge-based Japanese restaurant inspired her to pursue a career as a chef and restaurateur.

She recalled doing a project as a fifth grader where she answered what she would do with a million dollars. “I wrote that I was going to take over her restaurant,” she said.

As a young chef, Chang trained at the three-star Michelin restaurant Martín Berasategui in San Sebastian, Spain, which inspired her to fuse the two apparently disparate cuisines.

“I just saw a lot of similarities between the two cuisines in terms of their respect for seafood,” Chang said.

“Those two cuisines worked quite harmoniously together, and it was a lot of what I was cooking at home, and so very selfishly, I wanted to do that in my restaurant,” she added.

She also coordinates lectures with chefs from around the world for the Science and Cooking Program at Harvard.

“I’m excited to see the program evolve,” Chang said. “I hope that this nomination can also help bring more light to that program.”

Dennehy, the head chef of Talulla, said he and his wife, co-owner Danielle Ayer, pride themselves on the restaurant’s simple cuisine and use of local ingredients.

“One of the things that I’m the most proud about here is the bread — we make really great bread,” Dennehy said. “That’s the most humble food that you can ever have.”

With Spanish, Italian, and Japanese influences, Dennehy said that Talulla used to struggle to define itself.

“What we settled on that makes the most sense is saying ‘modern American,’ in the sense that America itself is a gigantic melting pot,” Dennehy said.

He said his nomination for the award was deeply validating.

“We’ve been kind of quietly working for almost six years here, and it feels great to get some recognition,” Dennehy said. “But we really want to just keep doing our thing, and we finally feel like we figured out who we are as a restaurant.”

Estorino, chef and owner of Gustazo Cuban Kitchen & Bar, said she was never professionally trained, but instead learned on the job.

Gustazo now has two locations, open in both Waltham and Cambridge. When she first launched Gustazo in Belmont in 2011, Estorino felt like she was addressing a lack of Cuban restaurants in the area.

Now, she thinks there are far more options for Cuban food in the city.

“There are a lot of chefs doing fantastic things, working really hard, and who are very, very talented,” Estorino said. “I guess what we try to do is stay true to Cuban cuisine and try to develop it, be creative, and stay true to the flavors or regions.”

All three chefs said the award would only keep motivating them to improve their cooking.

“It’s changed everything, and it’s changed nothing,” Dennehy said.

“We want to make good food, we want to make our guests happy, we want to keep doing interesting things, and it’s definitely a motivator to keep pushing in the same direction that we were going,” said Dennehy.

The awards’ finalists will be announced on April 3, and the winners will be announced at a ceremony in Chicago on June 10.

—Staff writer Elise D. Hawkins can be reached at elise.hawkins@thecrimson.com.

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