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Local chefs up for presitigious James Beard Foundation Award

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CLAYTON, MO (KTVI) – The old phrase “if you can’t stand the heat, then get out of the kitchen” does not apply to Ashley Shelton.

The executive chef at Pastaria in Clayton is considered one of the best in town. Now she’s one of five St. Louis chefs who are semifinalist for a James Beard Foundation Award.

“So I was pretty taken aback; I was shocked,” Shelton said. “Yeah, it’s crazy, a dream come true.”

She joins Kevin Willmann of Farmhaus, Jesse Mendica of Olive + Oak, Kevin Nashan of Sidney Street Café, and Mike Randolph at Publico, the Latin American-inspired cantina in the Loop.

“We do most of our cooking on live fire,” said Randolph, owner and chef at Publico. “We use Missouri Oak and we have this custom made hearth which is most visible from most points of the restaurant.”

This is Randolph’s second year to be a semifinalist for best chef Midwest. Thursday afternoon, he was getting ready for the evening ahead.

Gone are the days of kitchens and cooks hidden in the back. Modern eateries like Publico and Pastaria are opening up their spaces, showing diners they’ve got nothing up their sleeve except a dash of determination to be called the best chef in the Midwest.

While Gordon Ramsey gets spicy with his dishes and his language on TV, the real life restaurateurs in the Gateway City have a different approach.

“This kitchen is much different,” said Shelton. “We have a lot more fun here. I try to lead in a little bit softer way.”

Make no mistake, both Shelton and Randolph are semifinalists because they know how to run a tight ship in a competitive cooking business.

“It is stressful, striving for perfection every single day with every single dish,” said Shelton. “You know, a restaurant like Pasteria, we can do 400 to 500 people in a night. And putting out 500 perfect dishes is very stressful.”

Shelton has learned from the best. Her mentor, Gerard Craft, was the first St. Louis chef to win a James Beard Foundation Award in 2015.

“You know chefs are inherently competitive and we all want to win,” Randolph said. “But I think the more people that get recognized from a community like St. Louis the better it is for all of us.”