Two Central Kentucky chefs are semifinalists for prestigious James Beard awards

Two Central Kentucky chefs have been named semifinalists in the 2023 James Beard Awards.

Both are associated with non-traditional restaurants: Samantha Fore does pop-ups and Isaiah Screetch cooks for a pay-what-you-can cafe.

And now both chefs are semi-finalists in the category “Best Chef: Southeast,” which covers Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia.

That means they are up against chefs from Nashville, Charlotte, Atlanta, Charleston and more for the award. Winners will be celebrated June 5 at a ceremony in Chicago.

Sam Fore, Tuk Tuk Sri Lankan Bites in Lexington

Samantha Fore poses for a photo at her home in Lexington, Ky., Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. Fore may be the most famous chef in Lexington who doesn’t have a restaurant.
Samantha Fore poses for a photo at her home in Lexington, Ky., Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. Fore may be the most famous chef in Lexington who doesn’t have a restaurant.

Sam Fore runs Tuk Tuk Sri Lankan Bites, a Sri Lankan & Southern pop-up concept that has been garnering fans for several years now. (It’s the one place “Top Chef” judge Padma Lakshmi ate while she was in Lexington with the show in 2018.)

Fore’s business grew out of brunches in her home and now her work has been featured in several national publications including the cover of “Food & Wine” magazine in 2018.

Samantha Fore tops a mango curry with green onion at her home in Lexington, Ky., Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. Fore may be the most famous chef in Lexington who doesn’t have a restaurant.
Samantha Fore tops a mango curry with green onion at her home in Lexington, Ky., Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. Fore may be the most famous chef in Lexington who doesn’t have a restaurant.

She’s been on “Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street” on PBS since 2021 and hosts “Cookish with Sam Fore” on Facebook and Instagram. But she has never really opened a full-on brick and mortar restaurant. Instead, she’s traveled around, promoting Kentucky and sharing her unique fusion of Sri Lankan and Southern food. But that’s about to change. Fore says she is planning to open a restaurant here later this year.

In a 2020 interview, Fore told the Herald-Leader that as a child of immigrants she was expected to work hard and to become a doctor like her father. But she realized it wasn’t for her and instead she worked in a variety of fields, from the music industry to website design before finding an audience with her food.

Fore said Wednesday that the news that she’s a semi-finalist hasn’t sunk in. “I’m still kinda in shock,” she said.

Isaiah Screetch, Spark Community Cafe in Versailles

The other semi-finalist from Central Kentucky is Isaiah Screetch, a Danville native who is the chef at Spark Community Cafe in Versailles.

Chef Isaiah Screetch of Spark Community Cafe in Versailles, holding the Eggs Benedict Pizza served on Sunday at brunch, is a semifinalist for a James Beard Award.
Chef Isaiah Screetch of Spark Community Cafe in Versailles, holding the Eggs Benedict Pizza served on Sunday at brunch, is a semifinalist for a James Beard Award.

It’s a small pay-what-you-can restaurant that has been closed for renovations but will be reopening Feb. 1.

The cafe opened in 2019; before that Screetch worked in hospitality at Keeneland, Lexington’s seasonal racetrack. Although he’d started taking courses at Sullivan University, a chef at the track told him to save $50,000 and learn on the job instead. Screetch never looked back.

Kim Parker, of Boston, Mass., jokes with her niece Chloe Brown, 13, of Versailles, Ky., during brunch at Spark Community Cafe in Versailles, Ky., Sunday, June 23, 2019. Spark Community Cafe operates on a pay what you can scale and offers people an opportunity to volunteer time in exchange for their meal.
Kim Parker, of Boston, Mass., jokes with her niece Chloe Brown, 13, of Versailles, Ky., during brunch at Spark Community Cafe in Versailles, Ky., Sunday, June 23, 2019. Spark Community Cafe operates on a pay what you can scale and offers people an opportunity to volunteer time in exchange for their meal.

Screetch cooks meals for anyone who stops by the restaurant as well as more than 40 families in need in Versailles twice a week.

“Basically what we do is try to diminish food insecurity in Woodford County,” he said. “People can come in even if they can’t pay anything and they still can eat. We have a great group from the community who donates money, time, whatever it takes to make sure people have meals to eat.”

Much of the cafe’s produce comes from local farmers, some of whom donate to their surplus.

“That’s also part of our mission, to help local farmers,” Screetch said. Shaker Village last year donated a lot of fresh produce, from okra and tomatoes to green beans and asparagus, he said.

Many of the customers who come in don’t realize what kind of a restaurant Spark is when they arrive; they’re just there for great food. But when they find out “most are changed instantly,” he said.

Screetch said Wednesday that he was “beyond excited” to be recognized for his work.

Kyle Fannin, executive director of the cafe, said they are proud but not surprised.

“We kept getting comments like ‘this is the best fill-in-the-blank I have ever tasted’ from customers and that has continued for nearly four years. It doesn’t matter if it is a sandwich in the café or a fancy catered meal,” Fannin said. “We are so lucky to have him, but we give him room to be creative and the catering has allowed us to pay him more. Also, he believes in our mission of providing for the food insecure.”