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Two Delaware chefs earn James Beard nominations

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Delaware’s restaurant scene continued its run of accolades in recent years as The House of William & Merry chef Bill Hoffman earned his first James Beard nomination and Antimo DiMeo, of Bardea, earned his second overall and first as a chef.

The semifinalist nominations, announced Wednesday by the James Beard Foundation, are one of the highest honors for American chefs. It marks the return of the awards program after it was canceled last year amid the fallout of the pandemic and its impact on the industry. The overall winners of the awards, considered the Oscars of the food industry, will be announced in June with finalists named March 16.

Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head Brewery, won Delaware’s last James Beard Award in 2017 for outstanding wine, beer, or spirits professional, while the late Matt Haley of SoDel Concepts won the organization’s humanitarian award.

The House of William & Merry chef Bill Hoffman, right, earned a James Beard nomination. He credits the support of his wife, Merry Catanuto. | PHOTO COURTESY OF HOUSE OF WILLIAM & MERRY

On Wednesday, it was Hoffman and DiMeo’s turn to bask in a bit of industry acclaim. The First State doesn’t win a lot of the industry awards, but heralds the highly sought-after nominations, typically scoring one or two a year.

Hoffman, who opened The House of William & Merry off Old Lancaster Pike in Hockessin with his wife, Merry, in 2011, told Delaware Business Times that he was baking some bread Wednesday morning when he got a call from the staff of Heirloom, a Lewes restaurant that earned nominations for then-chef Matt Kern in 2019 and 2020.

“I was kind of in disbelief … and then I started getting a bunch of people calling me,” he said. “You start thinking about all the moments and all the stuff that led up to this moment, and it’s just a bit overwhelming.”

Calling Merry his “momma bear” that keeps the operation going, Hoffman credited the support of his wife, his staff and his community for the recognition.

“You can see all the restaurants and chefs that get [nominations] and they’re in big cities, and you just begin to wonder if they’ll ever find little Hockessin. Over the past few years, we’ve just really focused on taking care of our community,” he said. “We wouldn’t be here without this town and this award is pretty cool for the whole town.”

DiMeo, executive chef at Bardea in Wilmington’s Market Street corridor, is no stranger to the Beard awards, having guided the 4-year-old contemporary Italian restaurant to a 2019 best new Mid-Atlantic restaurant nomination.

The 29-year-old  only expected to be eligible for best emerging chef, for those young rising stars. As he and Bardea partner Scott Stein scrolled through the nominations Wednesday, they were initially deflated to not see him listed there but overjoyed to find him among the established chefs.

“Scott literally tackled me into the bar, yelling and congratulating me,” he told DBT. “Since the day I started cooking, my dream was to get nominated for the rising star category before I was 30. So, to skip right over that to get nominated as a best chef mid-Atlantic just leaves me speechless. I’m just incredibly grateful and humbled.”

Stein, who said he and DiMeo set a goal of “Beard or Bust” when they began their partnership nearly a decade ago, said the recognition is even sweeter in its timing, as restaurants continue to face hiring difficulties, inflation and pandemic restrictions.

“It’s been such a challenging two years and when you get something like this, it gives you a reason to keep fighting the fight,” he said.

Stein and DiMeo would be the first to say that their Beard nomination a few years ago helped to validate their reputation and packed their 120 seats in the years afterward – it continues to be one of the hottest restaurants in Wilmington. They hope that excitement also carries over to their new concept, Bardea Steak, which will open on Market Street in a few months.

Hoffman also expects the honor will help new patrons find his 60-seat restaurant a bit off the beaten path from the Interstate 95 corridor. On Wednesday though, he was busy getting his curated menu ready for the night’s customers.

“We’ll have a little champagne before the shift and then we’ll be ready to go,” he said.

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