Their Path to Success: How 3 James Beard-Nominated Chefs Reached Culinary Stardom

A French-Hawaiian chef, a Southern foodways disciple, and a Vietnamese boss in Vegas. While seemingly disparate, these acclaimed, high-achieving chefs are all brought together this month as they await the news of their James Beard Awards nominations on June 13.

Honolulu’s Robynne Maii, Charlotte’s Greg Collier, and Las Vegas’s Jamie Tran are among a group of more than 60 finalists at the James Beard Awards in the regional chef categories. Maii and Tran are first-time finalists, and Collier is attempting to win the Southeast region category for the third time. 

Though these chefs spotlight cuisines that are totally distinct from one another—and operate in different styles of restaurants—they share a deep commitment to their communities, a desire to nurture the next generation of chefs, and bring foods that haven’t received as much attention into the mainstream.

In the lead up to the awards ceremony, OpenTable spoke with these chefs on how they got started, how they’re engaging with their communities, what the Beard nomination means to them, and what they hope to do next. Read on for their stories.

Robynne Maii, Fête, Honolulu

The chef Robynne Maii cooking in her kitchen

Robynne Maii is the chef and co-owner of Honolulu’s Fête. Photo credit: Fête.

At Fête in Honolulu, every day is a celebration, a nod to the restaurant’s French name. Whether it’s recognizing the farmers and producers by putting their names on the menu or welcoming diners commemorating any kind occasion, chef Robynne Maii embraces Hawai’i’s reputation for prioritizing seasonality and hospitality. Inspired by their love of hosting dinner parties and their appreciation of Honolulu’s farm-to-table community, Maii and her husband, Chuck Bussler, opened the restaurant in 2015.

The menu is flush with goods from farmers who explore microclimates in Hawaii to grow crops such as radicchio, fennel, and sunchokes, all of which aren’t traditionally grown on Oahu. Those ingredients have been incorporated into dishes like a salad featuring organic greens, radish, carrot, and fennel as well as the house cioppino soup. Dishes like the twice-fried chicken with spicy tomato jam, and the lilikoi (passionfruit) cheese flan with hibiscus—which Maii says reflect Hawaii’s sense of aloha, or a feeling of warmth and fellowship—have made Maii a star in Honolulu and beyond.

Dishes like the twice-fried chicken have made Maii a star in Honolulu and beyond. Photo credit: Fête.

Next on Maii’s to-do list is writing a cookbook. Prior to her career as a chef, she worked at the beloved NYC bookstore, Kitchen Arts and Letters, assisting late founder Nach Waxman. At her Honolulu restaurant, the private dining room doubles up as a library of cookbooks. “In culinary school, we discussed all of these culinary icons [such as] Julia Child, Edna Lewis, Alice Waters, Madhur Jaffrey,” Maii says. “All of these incredibly strong women who are iconic cookbook authors, too.” Maii is well on her way to claim her place in that group.

Gregory Collier, Leah & Louise, Charlotte

Gregory Collier, the chef and co-owner of Charlotte’s Leah & Louise. Photo credit: Peter Taylor Photography

Memphis native Gregory Collier’s cooking is wholly Southern with a focus on his Tennessee valley roots. Think fried chicken skins with ranch dressing; fried turkey wings with spicy sorghum, smoked benne seeds, and collard stem slaw; and slow-roasted cabbage with pork neck bisque, pepper and honey—all made with local, seasonal ingredients. 

Alongside his wife and business partner, Subrina, Collier is building a culinary empire in Charlotte, N.C. “I want to be more of a coach and a leader in the way that is gonna inspire people,” he says. His restaurant Leah & Louise (named after Greg’s late sister and grandmother) presently serves as a testing ground for a handful of new dining projects. The Colliers plan to open five restaurants this year, including a relaunch of the Rock Hill, S.C. breakfast staple, Uptown Yolk, as well as four spots at Charlotte’s Camp North End, including a modern speakeasy called the Abyss.

Leah & Louise has served as a testing ground for several new restaurants Collier plans to open with his wife Subrina Collier this year. Photo credit: Peter Taylor Photography

To build on their efforts as mentors in the local culinary scene, the couple started the BayHaven Food & Wine Festival in 2021, an annual celebration of modern Black foodways and culinary experts. It centers the faces and voices in the hospitality industry that were previously shut out or silenced, Collier says. “If I stop today, I’ve done more in my lifetime than a lot of people have been able to do,” he says.

Jamie Tran, the Black Sheep, Las Vegas

Chef Jamie Tran in a black chef apron looking into the camera

Jamie Tran is the chef at Las Vegas’ the Black Sheep. Photo credit: the Black Sheep

Chef Jamie Tran of the Black Sheep in Las Vegas lives life on her own terms. Just like her adopted city, her goals are big, bold, and unexpected. 

She moved to Vegas in 2010 and gave herself ten years to own a restaurant—she managed to achieve that goal in seven. During the first year of operations, she won diners over with her Vietnamese comfort fare that included influences from food all over the world, such as salmon skin tacos filled with salmon belly tartare and tobiko, or flying fish roe; beef crisps dusted with the Mexican spice blend, Tajin; and bao sliders with housemade pork sausage, fried quail egg, crispy shallots, and jalapeño aioli.

For her efforts, Eater named her chef of the year and the Black Sheep restaurant of the year in 2017. During the pandemic shutdown, she competed on Bravo’s Top Chef: Portland, placing fourth.

A series of dishes placed on a black table.

Tran has been wowing diners with her Vietnamese comfort fare served with a global twist. photo credit: the Black Sheep

“I decided if I was gonna be a chef, I’m gonna own my own restaurant and hire people that are undoubtedly like me,” Tran says. She didn’t initially want to be a chef. Her father is a chef and she experienced first hand the long hours he kept, alongside the mental and physical toll it takes on the body. At first, she only enjoyed cooking at home with family. That changed after she worked as a dishwasher and prep cook at a Northern California restaurant as a teenager, changed her major in college to business administration, and decided to head to culinary school after that.

While accolades and recognition have Tran flying high, her family and friends have kept her grounded. “Chefs, we just work ourselves to death,” Tran says. “Mentally and physically we just break down…I’m blessed to have my sister and my besties and honestly my friends from Top Chef. We all understand each other. We are all going through the same things.”

Nikki Miller-Ka is a food and travel writer based in North Carolina with 15 years’ experience as a private chef, butcher, baker, and biscuit maker. She is a James Beard restaurant and chef judge for the Southeast, but does not select who gets nominated or voted on in a region.