By Maureen Post Special to Published Mar 02, 2010 at 3:32 PM

 If you want expert confirmation that Wisconsin’s culinary scene is moving in the right direction, the James Beard Award is your answer.

In the last four years, we’ve gone from solely one nomination in 2007 to six nominations in 2010. In 2008, Adam Seigel of Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro took the title of "Best Midwest Chef" and this year, four Wisconsin based chef’s are vying for the opportunity to be named the best of the best once again. In a category encompassing the industry in eight Midwestern states, Wisconsin makes one of the strongest showings with four nominees.

So for anyone doubting that Wiscosinites know how to cook, and cook well, here’s the backing to prove them wrong.

The James Beard Foundation Award, named after chef and food writer James Beard, is the top honor for chefs, restaurants, restaurateurs and food writers in the United States.

To be nominated is in itself a honor and we should be proud of what Wisconsin’s earned thus far. This year’s nominees for "Best Midwest Chef" include Milwaukeeans Chef Peggy Magister of Crazy Water and Chef Dan Van Rite of Hinterland Erie Street Gastropub, Madison’s Chef Nicholas Johnson of Restaurant Magnus and Chef Jim Webster of Wild Rice in Bayfield.

In addition, Sanford Restaurant recieved a nomination for "Outstanding Restaurant" and Chef de cuisine Justin Aprahamian is up for "Rising Star Chef of the Year," an award reserved for chefs under 30 years old.

The finalists will be announced on March 22 and then awarded on May 2. In the meantime, here’s a closer look at Wisconsin’s 2010 James Beard Award nominees.

Chef: Dan Van Rite
Restaurant: Hinterland Erie Street Gastropub, 222. E. Erie St.
Nomination: Best Midwest Chef.
Hometown: Green Bay.
Culinary school: Western Culinary School in Portland, Ore. (now Le Cordon Bleu).
Previous experience: Van Rite has worked in restaurants in Oregon, Colorado, Florida, Minnesota as well as the original Hinterland in Green Bay and The Whistling Swan in Fish Creek.
Menu style: At Hinterland, Van Rite creates a daily changing menu featuring sustainably grown produce, wild game, seafood and meat. The restaurant, which doubles as a brewery, also focuses on incorporating beer into fine dining food.
Signature menu item: Andouille crusted seafood served over a hash of bacon, peppers, fingerling potatoes with red hot butter sauce.
Culinary approach: "My culinary approach is to get the best products available and let them speak for themselves. I have a fondness for farm raised game meats and fish. I also enjoy wild mushrooms and wild edibles."
Reaction to the nomination: "When I first found out I was drinking coffee and reading this New York blog that I always read. The first article was about the James Beard Awards. When I saw my name, I was shocked. It's exciting but it still doesn't change who I am. It's good to be noticed for all the work and effort I put into my profession."
National attention and local pressure: "I don't feel any extra pressure with the nomination. I try to improve every day and that’s what I have always done."
Wisconsin’s nominations: "Having five nominations in Wisconsin is awesome. It shows that we have really talented chefs."

Chef: Justin Aprahamian
Current restaurant: Sanford, 1547 N. Jackson St.
Nomination: Rising Star Chef of the Year and Sanford is nominated as Outstanding Restaurant.
Hometown: New Berlin.
Culinary school: Waukesha Area Technical College.
Previous experience: Aprahamian worked locally in a café and catering business before earning a position at Sanford.
Menu style: Incorporating seasonal French, American, Continental, Mediterranean and contemporary ethnic flavors into their cuisine, Sanford serves a daily changing menu highlighted by a continuously changing "four-course seasonal menu."
Signature menu item: Starter of lamb coppa with pickled fennel and golden raisins, toasted fennel dressing.
Culinary approach: "At Sanford, we’re very seasonal and very market-driven. We see what’s around and let it dictate what we cook. It doesn’t mean at times we don’t dream up big ideas but we really get our inspiration from the ingredients."
Reaction to the nomination: "Sandy (D’Amato) told me and I didn’t believe it. I found out a couple of weeks before the nominations were published and I didn’t tell anyone, other than my parents, because I didn’t believe it was true. I still don’t necessarily believe it’s true."
National attention and local pressure: "I don’t really feel any additional pressure because Sanford has always had national attention. Not me, personally, but I’ve always felt a certain pressure working here."
Wisconsin’s nominations: "Hopefully, it means we're getting some more recognition. It’s tough in Milwaukee to get national attention and the nominations speak volumes about where this city is headed."
Sanford’s nomination as "Outstanding Restaurant": "Outside of the food, Sanford is just very welcoming. There is a closeness with the customers; intimacy brought on by the attention to detail."

Chef: Peggy Magister
Current restaurant: Crazy Water, 839 S. 2nd St. Nomination: Best Midwest Chef.
Hometown: Wauwatosa.
Culinary school: California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, Calif.
Previous experience: Magister worked at Wolfgang Puck’s Postrio in San Francisco and then opened The Fork in Cedarburg and Crazy Water in Milwaukee’s Walker’s Point.
Menu style: Magister takes a trip to Napa Valley year or two. There, she finds inspiration and uses it to periodically change the menu.
Signature menu item: Comfort food with a twist.
Culinary approach: "I like good quality food; high-end food but without the pretense. I want people to feel comfortable. I don’t want to give food more credibility than it deserves -- my belief is food is food. I went to school in San Francisco and worked there for a bit; there the ingredients are fresh, but you don’t have to wear a suit. That’s where it all started for me."
Reaction to the nomination: "I honestly don’t pay a lot of attention. I’m just not a competitive person. But, no question, I was shocked."
National attention and local pressure: "I feel a pressure for sure. People’s expectations are so much more but it’s good for me because it keeps me on my toes. I’m competitive within myself but not with others."
Wisconsin’s nominations: "It really shows how much the culinary scene has grown in the last five or six years in this city."

Chef: Nicholas Johnson
Current restaurant: Restaurant Magnus, Madison. Nomination: Best Midwest Chef.
Culinary school: Madison Area Technical College.
Previous experience: Johnson did an internship in New York’s Café Ballou before coming back to Wisconsin and taking the position as sous chef at Restaurant Magnus.
Menu style: Johnson helped Restaurant Magnus transition from South American tapas to Scandanavian fare in 2008. His menu changes seasonally with daily specials.
Signature menu item: Entree featuring caraway seared venison and venison Carpaccio with smoked gouda-egg flan, oyster mushrooms, arugula, red onion and lingonberry syrup.
Culinary approach: "When I took over, we wanted to do something different and so we moved to a Scandinavian menu using things like river stones, Himalayan salt bricks and local produce. We try to do upscale contemporary Scandinavian food with the ingredients we can get locally. The spices are traditional but the approach is very contemporary."
Reaction to the nomination: "I really don’t expect to be a finalist. I’m really pleased to be nominated because I’m so young (Johnson is 30 years old). It’s great just to be noticed."
National attention and local pressure: "I do feel a pressure but we didn’t sign up for this in anyway; I was very blindsided to be honest. There was no expectation on my part. If you start to change your approach in order to get nominated or once to win the award, then maybe that’s all you’re after."
Wisconsin’s nominations: "It says a lot about Wisconsin. Wisconsin is a state that no one really thinks of in the culinary world. When I was in New York, other chefs would ask about Wisconsin in kind of a sarcastic way and I would praise Madison, praise Wisconsin. If someone from Wisconsin wins, that would be two out of the last three years."

Chef: Jim Webster
Current restaurant: Wild Rice, Bayfield.
Nomination: Best Midwest Chef.
Culinary school: Webster is self-taught and did not attend culinary school. He received a BA in studio art from the University of Minnesota.
Previous experience: Webster spent four years at Sheik’s Restaurant in St. Paul, Minn. From there, he travelled in Europe and learned French cooking. He returned to run Wild Rice owner Mary Rice’s The Clubhouse on Madeline Island for 17 years, followed by Wild Rice starting in 2001.
Menu style: Wild Rice, open seasonally from May through October, is known for French-American cooking. The menu changes periodically to incorporate local ingredients but also maintains several signature items.
Signature menu item: In dozens of restaurant reviews, critics and diners rave about Webster’s prosciutto wrapped beef with mascarpone mashed potatoes and cabernet truffle as well as his creamy wild rice soup with house-smoked duck and Bayfield sugar snap peas.
Culinary approach: Wild Rice has long been known for its distinctive architecture and breathtaking views of Lake Superior. Now, they are known for their food as well. Webster’s background in studio arts is reflective in his precise, sculpture like plating. Unfortunately, because the seasonal Wild Rice is not open at this time, Webster was not available for comment.

Maureen Post Special to staff writer Maureen Post grew up in Wauwatosa. A lover of international and urban culture, Maureen received a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

After living on the east side of Madison for several years, Maureen returned to Milwaukee in 2006.

After a brief stint of travel, Maureen joined as the city’s oldest intern and has been hooked ever since. Combining her three key infatuations, Milwaukee’s great music, incredible food and inspiring art (and yes, in that order), Maureen’s job just about fits her perfectly.

Residing in Bay View, Maureen vehemently believes the city can become fresh and new with a simple move across town.