Local chefs named semi-finalists for James Beard Awards


Photo by Mark Von Holden | AP Images

Atmosphere at The JBF Gala: A Night of Award Winners at the Rainbow Room on Friday, Nov. 10, 2017 in New York.

By Anoushka Parnerkar, Staff Writer

The most well-known Pittsburgh cuisine includes a lot of french fries 一 whether it’s on sandwiches, salads, or with a side of Heinz ketchup. But Pittsburgh’s culinary scene extends to cuisines from around the world, and now some restaurants are nationally-recognized.

The James Beard Foundation released semi-finalists for its annual awards recognizing the nation’s culinary leaders on Jan. 25. This year, two Pittsburgh restaurants had chefs honored as semi-finalists for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic 一 Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski of Apteka in East Liberty, and Nik Forsberg of Fet Fisk in O’Hara.

The James Beard Foundation created these awards in 1990 to honor the culinary legacy of the late James Beard and celebrate pioneers in America’s food industry. Notable winners of the awards include Bobby Flay and Anthony Bourdain

Apteka, Pittsburgh’s hotspot for upscale Polish food, is continuing its streak of James Beard nominations after securing a semifinalist spot two years in a row. 

Unlike most Polish restaurants, Apteka hosts a fully vegan menu. Kate Lasky, owner of Apteka and a Pittsburgh native, said she and her partner Tomasz Skowronski are both vegan, so tying in their culture and lifestyle was important to both chefs.

“It’s kind of how we experience food and it’s something that is really important to us,” Lasky said.

Lasky and Skowronski aim to bring a taste of Slavic culture to Pittsburgh through an inviting dining experience. Lasky’s family has lived in the United States for a few generations, but Skowronski is a first-generation American whose strong ties to Polish culture have a great impact on Apteka’s food.

​​“Tomasz, being first generation, spent a lot of time going back and forth from Poland,” Lasky said. “[Skowronski] grew up in a family of people who were ‘good eaters.’ They were always using food differently, picking mushrooms, growing their own produce.”

Apteka’s menu presents the same idea. With a seasonally rotating array of dishes and ingredients, they pay homage to Slavic culture while including their own renditions of the cuisine, such as a vegan spin on pierogies, kluski and paczki.

“We do both. There are certain things that are classics that we do really well, like naleśniki. And then there’s other things where we use our interpretation of ingredients or methods,” Lasky said.

Apteka is an immersive experience, from the mood lighting to funky music in the background, to a menu entirely in Polish. Lasky found that along with the food, people enjoyed the whole Apteka experience, which inspired them to turn their pop-up into a full-service restaurant in 2018. 

“I never thought we would open a restaurant. I thought we would just be doing this pop-up thing, but then it evolved into this,” Lasky said. 

Nik Forsberg, Fet-Fisk’s chef and owner, debuted on the list of the industry’s most prestigious chefs and restaurants. Fet-Fisk, which operates as a pop-up dinner service at the local farmers market, draws from Nordic heritage with an emphasis on seafood and vegetables grown from their farm. 

Forsberg said his experience as a first-generation Swedish American was a large inspiration behind the concept of the pop-up.

“Sweden isn’t exactly known for its cuisine past Ikea Swedish meatballs, but my culinary nostalgia from Scandinavian visits always centered around sublime seafood, so we worked that into the concept,” Forsberg said.

While Fet-Fisk’s dishes are not fully “authentic” to Nordic cuisine, their dishes include European classics with a Scandinavian touch, Forsberg said. 

“The majority of my recipes are classic European dishes tinged with Scandinavian flavors,” Forsberg said. “I spend a lot of time with my nose in old cookbooks trying to dig up antiquated dishes that I can rework to fit the brand.”

Forsberg started cooking at the ripe age of 16 at a country club and said he hasn’t left the kitchen since. He then spent three years working as an organic farmer, which curated a deep appreciation for mother nature and organic ingredients.

“As it turns out, spending two hours weeding a bed of carrots is a great time to consider all the ways a carrot can be prepared,” Forsberg said. “As cliche as it might sound, I’d say that our great Mother Earth is right up there as well. If you pay any attention at all she’ll tell you exactly what you need to be cooking and eating.”

Kat Thakkar, a senior nutrition science major and avid restaurant-goer, said she is proud of the recognition The James Beard Foundation gives these local chefs.

“My experience at Apteka was phenomenal, I was truly blown away by the depth of flavors and textures,” Thakkar said. “The entire experience —  food, service, mood — is a 10 out of 10.”

Thakkar said she’s glad that one of her favorite restaurants is receiving the acknowledgment it deserves. 

“Finding out that two Pittsburgh chefs have been nominated for a James Beard award evokes a great sense of ‘yinzer’ pride,” Thakkar said. “I find that it is often overlooked. I am overjoyed that these chefs are getting the recognition they deserve.”

Thanks to the restaurant’s popularity and growth, Forsberg and the Fet-Fisk team are thinking about opening a new location in Bloomfield. He said the recognition from the James Beard Foundation is a lucrative step towards their goals. 

“Getting that national recognition has been hugely legitimizing for me and the project, and speaks to some notion that what we are trying to do has some merit,” Forsberg said. “We are hopeful that the James Beard nomination will be the vessel that gets us to the finish line of finally opening the doors of a permanent Fet-Fisk restaurant space to the public.”