Kuya Lord’s Maynard Llera wins Best Chef: California at the 2024 James Beard awards

The James Beard Foundation Awards, often regarded as the most prestigious national restaurant awards in America, took place Monday evening in Chicago, celebrating culinary and beverage professionals across a range of cuisines, price points and locales — and one Los Angeles chef took home the region’s biggest accolade.

In January, 18 Los Angeles-area chefs, pop-ups, bakeries and other culinary talent were named as semifinalists for the 2024 James Beard Foundation Restaurant and Chef Awards; in April only two L.A. and one Orange County businesses progressed as nominees. Tonight, one received the honor of Best Chef: California.

Clockwise from top left: Lucena chon, hiramasa collar, and pancit with blue prawns from Kuya Lord.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Chef-owner Lord Maynard Llera of modern-Filipino restaurant Kuya Lord, an L.A. Times 101 Best Restaurants awardee, won the coveted regional accolade. The restaurant, as well as Llera’s nickname, are a tagalog expression of endearment translating to “older brother.”

In April Llera told The Times that his nomination for the James Beard award symbolized a win for the Filipino community, regardless of whether he would go on to win in June. “It means a lot to me and the restaurant because it will give highlights to Filipino cuisine,” he said, “for pushing forward.”

Llera was raised in the Philippines’ Lucena City, before relocating to Los Angeles and working in some of L.A.’s most prestigious kitchens, including Bestia and h.wood group. In 2019 at the age of 40, he set out to pursue his own project. He debuted his Filipino barbecue operation as a pandemic pop-up from his home in La Cañada Flintridge, where word of mouth spread quickly; diners pre-ordered large aluminum trays of kare kare, pancit and other specialties to-go.

Chef Maynard Llera works the outside grill at his backyard pop-up in 2021, prior to opening his own restaurant.

Chef Maynard Llera works the outside grill at his backyard pop-up in 2021, prior to opening his own restaurant.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

In 2022 Llera shifted the concept into a quick-and-casual restaurant in Melrose Hill, where his signature lechon and sweet sausages now come served topping rice bowls or on eye-catching combo trays alongside modern dishes such as grilled hiramasa collars.

“I want to thank my wife, who came here to America to be with me and to support me since day one,” Llera said during his acceptance speech. “She even quit her job and shared with me through this journey. Without her, Kuya Lord wouldn’t be here now … this recognition is not just a testament to my individual efforts and hard work but a reflection of the support and encouragement and collaboration from many wonderful people in my life. I am fortunate enough to have mentors, friends and family all throughout this journey.

“I want to thank my team, my sous chef [Josh Simpao], who’s running the restaurant [and] gave me an opportunity to come here in Chicago and experience this once-in-a-lifetime [opportunity]. Thank you, everyone, thank you to James Beard, and maraming salamat po.”

Vegetable galettes from Gusto Bread in Long Beach.

Vegetable galettes are baked at dawn in Gusto Bread in Long Beach. The heritage-grain bakery was nominated for the 2024 James Beard Foundation award for outstanding bakery.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Long Beach artisanal panadería Gusto Bread was nominated in the category of outstanding bakery but did not win; Zu Bakery, in Portland, Maine, took that accolade. Gusto Bread, from owners Arturo Enciso and Ana Belén Salatino, can be found serving some of the region’s best pastries using thoughtfully sourced grains and other ingredients.

Strong Water tiki bar in Anaheim — named by the L.A. Times as one of the top tiki bars in Southern California — was a finalist in the category of outstanding wine and other beverages program. Lula Drake Wine Parlour in Columbia, S.C., won that honor Monday evening.

But a food luminary with deep roots in the region took home another accolade: What is arguably the most prestigious honor bestowed by the James Beard Foundation each year. Ruth Reichl, former Los Angeles Times Food editor, was awarded the lifetime achievement award.

A vertical portrait of Ruth Reichl, photographed smiling and in black and white

Ruth Reichl, photographed at the Los Angeles Times Studio at the Sundance Film Festival in 2023, received this year’s James Beard Foundation lifetime achievement award.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Reichl served as a food critic for the L.A. Times from 1984 to 1993 before becoming editor and hiring current L.A. Times Food general manager Laurie Ochoa and her husband, the late L.A. Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold. Reichl’s career has spanned decades and continents, documenting changing trends, palates and culinary landscapes for the New York Times, Gourmet, Saveur and Bon Appétit, among other publications.

“All weekend people have been saying to me, ‘You’re a legend,’ and I don’t feel like a legend,” Reichl said during the live broadcast of the ceremony’s red-carpet pre-show festivities. “I just do what I do, and, you know, I feel like the luckiest person on Earth. I’ve gotten to do exactly what I wanted my whole life. I do feel that not just me, but a whole group of us, of my generation, really changed how America eats and it’s a great feeling.”

Her influential writings extend far beyond articles; the chef and writer has penned a dozen books, including novels, cookbooks and memoirs. Reichl has also appeared as a judge on cooking show “Top Chef Masters” and as host and producer of 2023 documentary “Food and Country.”

The James Beard Foundation Awards are often referred to as “the Oscars of food.” Prior to the ceremony Reichl was surprised to learn from a red-carpet host that, among her many other achievements, she herself had allegedly coined the term: She called the first James Beard Foundation Awards ceremony “food Oscars.” The description featured in her recap of the inaugural event, which ran in the L.A. Times in 1991, (though chef Lydia Shire is also quoted in the article as saying, “I came from Boston because this is the Oscars of the food world”).

“I’ve been to the Beards since the first one,” Reichl said before Monday’s awards ceremony, “and I keep thinking [about] what a generational change there’s been: how much food has changed, and this generation is so different, so much more diverse, so much more exciting. And it gives me really great hope for what will happen in food going forward.”

In addition to Monday’s ceremony, the foundation held its annual media awards on June 8 to recognize the year’s top cookbooks, documentaries, reporting and other coverage. Like the 2024 restaurant awards, the 2024 media accolades also included few Los Angeles winners, though a number of local culinary series and writers — including Los Angeles Times Food editor Daniel Hernandez — received nominations this year.

“The Book of Sichuan Chili Crisp,” written by Fly by Jing chili-crisp entrepreneur and Suá Superette owner Jing Gao, won the category of visuals, with the award presented to photographer and visual artist Yudi Ela Echevarria. “The Michoacan File,” narrated by actor and L.A. restaurateur Danny Trejo, and directed by Bernardo Arsuaga, won the award for best documentary visual media. Find the full list of 2024 James Beard Foundation media award winners here.

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