Vicky Klukkert: On the Bright Side: Bovina chef nominated for James Beard award

Feb. 3—A Bovina chef has been nominated as a best chef in New York by the James Beard Foundation.

Sohail Zandi, chef at Brushland Eating House in Bovina, said in an email he found out he was nominated when he started to get messages from friends the morning the list was published. "Two back-to-back, which prompted me to look up the awards post on the James Beard site. It was a fun surprise," he said.

According to the foundation's website, its mission "is to celebrate, support, and elevate the people behind America's food culture and champion a standard of good food anchored in talent, equity and sustainability."

The foundation nominated outstanding and emerging chefs nationwide and regionally, outstanding pastry chefs or bakers, outstanding restauranteurs, outstanding bakeries, outstanding hospitality, outstanding wine and other programs, outstanding bar and outstanding and best new restaurants around the country on Jan. 25.

"It feels nice to recognized, especially eight years into cooking at Brushland," Zandi said. "It puts a stronger wind in your sails, knowing that the thing you love doing is appreciated. We know that opening our restaurant, spending so much of our time there, is a really good use of our energy and creativity, but a James Beard nomination is a sweet affirmation of that."

According to a media release, the categories reflect changes made in the wake of an extensive 2021 audit to address the longstanding biases baked into the awards process. New awards categories include an emerging chef award without an age cutoff, as well as regional best chef categories that now include separate awards for California, Texas and New York in hopes of recognizing a broader geographic range of winners. Voting is also different than it was before the 2020 hiatus, with prior winners (a group that skews white, and male) no longer being automatically included in the voting body that decides who moves on from the semifinalist list and, from there, who wins. The voting body has also expanded beyond traditional food media. The stated goal in the 2021 audit was also to have at least 50 percent of committee members and judges be people of color for the 2023 awards.

Zandi said he didn't go to school to become a chef, majoring in political science at Villanova and biology at New School. "Restaurants for me began as an efficient way to make money while living and going to school in New York City," he said. Working at the restaurants, he found the love of hosting and "making people at ease with a meal. I worked at The Grocery and Prime Meats in Brooklyn, and Uncle Boons, in the city. I then moved to Martha's Vineyard to help make cheese at The Grey Barn, as a way to break out of the hustle and pave a way for myself, and never looked back."

Zandi said he and his wife, Sara, visited Bovina one weekend in the summer of 2012, "and it just felt like we'd return one day. Kismet, is what we called it." After working in Massachusetts, the couple started looking for a place to live "and the building we are in now, was for sale."

They opened Brushland Eating House at 1927 County Route 6 in Bovina Center in May 2014, he said. The restaurant serves classic dishes and Zandi said he tries to cater to each person in the restaurant.

"Cooking for someone is very intimate and I like using food as a way to connect with people, get to know them," he said. "There's a dance that is done in a restaurant, and the whole experience is very important to me, not just the creation of dishes; it's the lighting and sound and great hospitality and refilling wine at precisely the right time or asking the questions that will get guests to unravel a bit, making food that speaks to who I am, to know more about who they are. That challenge of figuring out what each person needs — from me, as the person cooking but also from me, the host and from Brushland, the place that provides a party for the evening — is what keeps night after night so exciting for me."

Finalists will be announced on Wednesday, March 29, and the winners gala will be Monday, June 5, in Chicago, the release said.

Vicky Klukkert, staff writer, can be reached at or 607-441-7221.