Of course it’s wonderful news: Jen Castle and Blake Spalding, owners of Hell’s Backbone Grill, have made it to the semi-finals in the prestigious James Beard Awards in the category of Best Chefs in the Southwest region.

This is the third year the restaurant-in-the-middle-of-nowhere has made it this far.

James Beard Awards
Jen Castle and Blake Spalding are perennial favorites in the James Beard Awards but their restaurant’s remote location puts them at a disadvantage.

But the restaurant’s out-of-the-way location—Boulder, Utah—is one of the most remote towns in the country, which may be both its triumph and its Achilles Heel, at least as far as the James Beard Awards are concerned.

The story of Jen and Blake has been told many times in major media outlets, in the chefs’ own books and in this magazine. Running a successful restaurant, tending a six-acre farm and sticking to the principles of local and organic sourcing would be a huge, hard job anywhere. Pulling it off so far from any major town or airport seems practically impossible. But Jen and Blake are going into their 20th year. A triumph for sure.

James Beard was an excellent amateur cook, a TV host and cookbook writer and one of the first to champion American cuisine. After his death in 1985, friends like Julia Child and Peter Kump worked to preserve his Greenwich Village brownstone now known as Beard House. The foundation was established the next year and its scholarship fund has given millions of dollars to help train and support aspiring chefs both amateur and professional.

The Beard awards are the culinary equivalent of the Oscars.

Here’s the catch and where Hell’s Backbone gets a raw deal, I think. The list of semifinalists is voted on by food professionals around the country. Members of the Beard “academy,” if you will, can only vote on restaurants they have actually been to. Fair enough. But this set-up clearly gives the advantage to big cities and popular destinations that people are more likely to visit.

Being a semifinalist is an honor. Blake and Jen deserve it and Utah foodies rejoice in their nomination. It’s now the third time they’ve made the semis, where it seems likely they’ll stay by the very nature of their restaurant’s location.

Anyone want to charter a bus to drag bunch of coastal food snobs to the middle of nowhere?

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