The James Beard Foundation is instituting a major change in the judging process for its restaurant and chef awards this year. To wit: The judges will now actually visit the restaurants and taste the food of the chefs.

That might seem like a no brainer, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that that has always been the case. And it kinda sorta was, but not really.

Let me explain.

From the time the JBF Awards were initiated, in 1991, instantly becoming a sought-after coveted prize, the restaurant and chef categories were determined by panels of judges comprised of restaurant critics, food editors and other culinary experts. They made the initial recommendations for nominees, voted to cull the list to 20 or so semifinalists (choosing up to five favorites in each category), then ultimately voted on one of five finalists to determine the lucky winner.

(I was a charter judge and remained one for over 30 years but ended my relationship with the organization a few years ago; more on that in a moment.)

But the judges only had to attest that they had eaten in the restaurant OR tasted the nominated chef’s food. It did not matter if that restaurant visit or food consumption occurred last week or 10 years ago. There was also no attestation about where the food was consumed, maybe at the restaurant or at a charity food event the chef was attending. And judges could vote for restaurants outside their own regions. So judges could, in theory and certainly in practice, vote for a restaurant in, say, New Orleans that they visited and enjoyed several years ago without considering another nominee in, say, Orlando. (Both cities are in the South Region Best Chef category.)

A few years ago, the initial recommendation phase was opened up to accept nominations from anyone – restaurant owners, the dining public, a chef’s friends and relatives – with semifinal selections made by the official judges but still not requiring contemporaneous visits to the nominated restaurants.

But now that has changed.


Thejoint logo

What are they smoking in Sanford?

The people behind popular German restaurant Hollerbach’s (that would be the Hollerbachs) plan to open a marijuana-themed restaurant called The Joint at West End, as in the West End Trading Co., a concert venue in downtown Sanford. According to Hollerbach’s Facebook page, you can expect such things as Blazed Wings, Premo-Nuggs, Dope Sliders, and QP Dogs. All of it, presumably, THC free. But then with the current push to make recreational marijuana legal in Florida you never know. No opening date has been announced yet, so just chill.

Also, when did Hollerbach’s drop Willow Tree Cafe from its name? And why didn't they name the new place Hollerbach's Mellow Tree Cafe?

Elsewhere in Sanford, Buster’s Bistro, the Belgian bar and restaurant, has changed hands. The new owner is Robbie Kennerney, who also owns Sanfords Throwbacks bar as well as Bar 43 in Queens and the well-known McHale’s in midtown Manhattan. Kennerney, who is originally from Dublin, told me that he’s “not looking to do anything too dramatic” with the place and that he wants to be reverential and keep everything that was popular. Although he said he’ll likely move away from the Belgian theme and pare down the list of Belgian beers, which he said made the bar “an intimidating place to walk in to.” He said he’ll introduce a broader range of beers and craft cocktails.

Beginning in March, Buster’s Bistro will start serving lunch then have a full dinner menu but stop service at 9 p.m., then offer a limited late night menu. He’ll keep the name too, for now, but don’t be surprised if you see a change later on.

The former owners of Buster’s Bistro (that would be the Busters) are growing hemp in New Smyrna Beach and have opened a business called Turf Origins. And yes, they have edibles.


ThaiBasil ext

I hadn’t been to Thai Basil in more than 17 years. When the restaurant opened, in 2004, near the corner of Tuskawilla and Red Bug Lake Roads, that area wasn’t known for much beyond chain restaurants. Thai restaurants weren’t as scarce as they had been when I first came to Central Florida, but one opening in this part of town was a novelty. Most people were used to Taco Bells.

In fact, Thai Basil was and is next door to a Taco Bell. And Winter Springers (Tuskawillians?) took to TB (Thai Basil) in large numbers, so much so that TB (Taco Bell) resorted to towing cars whose drivers parked in its lot but walked next door to the Thai restaurant.

I went back to see how Thai Basil is doing these days. There was no problem finding a non Taco Bell parking space but the restaurant was doing a good business for an early-in-the-week lunch.


Rome viewRome at sunset.

I’m once again partnering with Art In Voyage, the Orlando and Cape Town travel agency that specializes in food and wine journeys, to host several trips later this year and in 2024.

Some of the trips have already been decided – and I’ll share details about those soon – but we’d like your help in narrowing down the choices for future trips.

Below you’ll find a poll with several options. There are four curated journeys but each has a different date option. You may vote for any or all that fancy you. (You’re not committing to anything; no one will contact you for a down payment. We just want to gauge interest.)


Chicken Rice casserole

Local Flavor is a montly collaboration between Scott Joseph's Orlando Restaurant Guide and The Community Paper.

I keep a list of recipes I refer to as my graduate student dishes because they’re quick, easy, often use shortcuts and are generally inexpensive to make. This particular recipe I collected shortly after grad school when I was in my first professional job as a communications media specialist. I worked for a small hospital in Illinois doing videography and photography of the sort best not discussed in a food column.

When I mentioned to one of my co-workers — think Flo, the waitress from the TV show “Alice,” but as a medical transcriptionist — that I wanted to cook more meals at home but didn’t know where to begin, she recommended that I start with this recipe, which she recited to me by memory.

It was just right for a novice, sort of like cooking with training wheels.

It’s also a good dish for anyone who needs to whip up something fast, simple and, for the most part, budget-friendly. And it’s an almost-one-dish recipe. In fact, if you want, you can mix the cream of chicken soup and water in the baking dish before you add the rice and eliminate the mixing bowl — you have my permission.

To save time, you can buy the chicken precut, or you can get a whole fryer and chop it up yourself, which you’ll find is cheaper. You can use the chicken wings — or not — but leave the back out of the dish and save it to make chicken stock. That’s a doctoral candidate-level recipe. See the recipe at The Community Paper.