Richmond’s dining community has been recognized by the nation’s top dining awards for the 11th year in a row.
The James Beard Foundation announced its restaurant and chef semifinalists Wednesday, and Lehja’s chef and owner Sandeep “Sunny” Baweja and Sub Rosa Bakery owners Evrim Dogu and Evin Dogu were again recognized for their work.
The Dogus — siblings, bakers and co-owners of Sub Rosa Bakery in Church Hill — were named in the outstanding baker category for the fourth year in a row, and Baweja was named a semifinalist for best chef in the Mid-Atlantic for the second year.
Chef Peter Chang, who co-owns Short Pump restaurant Peter Chang China Cafe, was also named a semifinalist for best chef in the Mid-Atlantic, but for his work in his Fairfax restaurant, Mama Chang. He shares the nomination with his wife, co-owner and co-chef, Lisa Chang.
The children of Turkish immigrants who grew up in Northern Virginia, Evrim Dogu and Evin Dogu opened Sub Rosa Bakery in December 2012 at 620 N. 25th St. in Church Hill. The bakery creates breads and pastries, both common enough menu items for a bakery, but it’s the ingredients and technique that sets Sub Rosa apart.
Sub Rosa specializes in stone-milling its own grain for flour and baking in a wood-fired oven — two rare and antiquated processes in modern baking.
“What we try to do is make the best pastries and breads we can, starting with the most basic ingredients first,” Evrim Dogu said. “Milling our own grain is the purest, simplest form of our connection to agriculture.”
The freshly ground flour results in a better tasting product and the wood-fired oven can add flavor and depth to the pastries and bread.
“[Fire] makes it so much more interesting,” Dogu said. “The textures and flavors are more dramatic.”
Dogu was in Ohio visiting his grandmother when he heard the news about the James Beard nomination.
“I got in touch with everyone back at the bakery and said congratulations to them,” he said, including his sister who was holding down the fort in Church Hill while he’s out of town.
Meanwhile in Short Pump, Baweja was taking care of a sick child at home when the congratulatory texts started rolling in.
Baweja opened Lehja India Delicious in Short Pump Town Center at 11800 W. Broad St. in 2010. The restaurant was an offshoot of the Hampton Roads-based chain Nawab Indian Cuisine owned by Ashok Arora, who is Baweja’s business partner in Lehja. Baweja got his start cooking in India, but initially focused on the front-of-the-house management and hospitality at Lehja. He was — and is — the face of the restaurant and a constant fixture in the dining room, but he’s also the chef.
“In India, even when you’re cooking, you’re doing everything,” Baweja said. “You’re cooking with passion and going back and forth from the front of the house to the back of the house.”
It’s a habit he brought with him to Richmond where Baweja frequently starts his day in the restaurant kitchen before lunch service, then heads to the dining room for service, then back to the kitchen.
“People say, ‘Are you the manager?’ I say, ‘Yes.’ ‘Are you the bartender?’ I say, ‘Yes.’ ‘Are you the chef, the general manager?’ ‘Yes. Yes,’ ” he said. “The important thing is, are you going to have a good experience overall? Yes.”
Baweja is as passionate about service as he is about cooking, and both are what have garnered Lehja national attention.
Lehja serves both traditional Indian dishes and contemporary takes on classics, such as its deconstructed butter chicken — the classic dish in which the chicken and sauce are cooked for days — is served alongside veggies with a lighter sauce or its Surf & Turf Curry. The restaurant also offers tasting menus and serves its take on Indian street food. Its wine list of Indian and European wines has repeatedly earned Wine Spectator’s “Award of Excellence.”
“I’ll be into the bubbles, some sparking wine, later on,” Baweja said of his plans for Wednesday evening.
No other Richmond restaurants or chefs were named as semifinalists, a smaller-than-usual showing from the New York-based foundation, which last year recognized five Richmond restaurants and in 2018 recognized four.
Virginia had two other semifinalists: Katherine Thompson of Thompson Italian in Falls Church, recognized for outstanding pastry chef; and Rutger de Vink of RdV Vineyards in Delaplane for outstanding wine, spirits or beer producer.
The New York-based James Beard Foundation was formed in 1990 to nurture and honor culinary professionals; the award winners are selected by a national panel of industry professionals who work from a list of online entries. The finalists will be announced March 25. No Richmond semifinalist has ever made it to the final round.