The newly minted James Beard Award semifinalist reflects on his career as a pastry chef and describes the simple elegance of Pistacia Vera's lemon tarts.

Spencer Budros grew up in Bexley with a portrait of James Beard, the American culinary icon, on his family’s dining room wall. Last week, the 49-year-old baker and co-owner of Pistacia Vera learned he was a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s 2020 Restaurant and Chef Awards, one of the most prestigious honors in the culinary world.

Budros is in the running for James Beard’s Outstanding Baker award, which recognizes “a pastry chef or baker who demonstrates exceptional skill, integrity and character in the preparation of desserts, pastries or breads served in a retail bakery,” according to the James Beard Foundation’s criteria. The candidates must have been working as a pastry chef or baker for the past five years.

A veteran of the baking industry for 25 years, Budros apprenticed at Arizona’s Fairmont Scottsdale Princess hotel and worked there for 10 years before moving back to his hometown. In 2004, he and his sister, Anne Fletcher, opened their first bakery, Pistachio, in the Short North. In 2007, the pair renamed the patisserie Pistacia Vera and relocated to 541 S. Third St. in German Village, formerly home to Thurn's Bakery & Deli. The café/bakery has since become a Columbus institution, specializing in French macarons, croissants, quiche and European-style desserts.

Budros, who responded via email to our Q&A below, is one of two Columbus chefs to be named James Beard Award semifinalists this year (and one of four representing Ohio). James Anderson, owner of Ray Ray’s Hog Pit, was nominated for Best Chef: Great Lakes. The semifinalists will be winnowed down on March 25 when the James Beard Foundation announces its finalists at 9 a.m.; you can follow the announcements live on Twitter at twitter.com/beardfoundation.

Be honest, were you surprised to be named a James Beard Award semifinalist? How did you learn the news?
I actually learned the news via text from one of my purveyor reps. I knew that the semifinalists would be announced that day, just didn’t know when. Recognition from the James Beard Foundation and Awards [has] always been the “dream.” I have not stopped smiling since learning of this! I was physically shaking for a bit after the news. I gave my sister a big hug. She is “everything” in this. When I got home, my wife had decorated the home with streamers, balloons and banners. She is undeniably the most thoughtful person. I am blessed. My parents forever had a picture of James Beard in our home dining room. I grew up looking at him! Crazy! 

What does it mean to you personally?
This has been a time of reflection of how much I appreciate every member of my Pistacia Vera team, past and present. I share this recognition with them. They are deserving of this. This is hard work. We are a bunch of imperfect people trying our best. We choose to create a product that is most often technique-driven. We are still learning. I am most inspired by my team. They give me perspective and drive to be better every day.  

You and James Anderson are the first Columbus chefs in eight years to be named semifinalists for the James Beard Foundation’s Restaurant and Chef Awards. What does this recognition mean for the city of Columbus?
I believe that James Anderson and I are truly humbled by this whole experience. To represent this amazing city. We know how many people every day are working hard in this industry. In Columbus, in America! To “stand out” like this is unimaginable.

When you were starting out, what was it about baking that captured your imagination?
Baking changed my life. I feel blessed to have found this craft that I instantly fell in love with. It has been the perfect mix between creativity and rigid structure. I need this to be happy. I love laboring. I love working with my hands. I love creating something that feels special. I love creating something that I know will be a “treat.“ Cooking has always been an act of “love” growing up. I do not take for granted the opportunity to be a part of making a moment in someone’s day just a bit more special. There is power and responsibility in that.  

You’ve been at your craft for a while, where do you find inspiration?
We are inspired by the true artisans in this world of baking and pastry. We respect tradition. We value the imperfection in a handcrafted product. We believe that restraint in our presentation and garnishment is “true to our brand.”  We believe that the care and attention to detail in creating texture and balanced flavor is paramount. We believe in being authentic. 

Where do you dine locally?
I really don’t eat out much. I am cooking most nights for my family and entertain multiple times a week for extended family and friends. I love to cook on my Green Egg [smoker/grill]! (So, I have great appreciation and respect for James Anderson. So happy for him and barbecue in Columbus!) I learned a love of “open fire” cooking from my dad. I just can’t get enough. I need to cook other than baking and pastry. I’m a big believer in showing how much I care through cooking for others. It’s sorta my life. It consumes me most of the time, but that’s me.

You’re stuck on a desert island and can have only one of Pistacia Vera’s baked goods to survive (there are worse things). What would it be?
I love the mini lemon tart that we do. I love the ratio of curd to crust. I love the sandy texture of our shortbread. I love that we squeeze fresh lemons. I love when we hand whip the curd until our arm hurts. The most lovely pale yellow color and ribbony texture. I love that we use the peel of our lemons and poach them in syrup for a simple garnish. I love that we toast the remaining shortbread crust and carefully finish the edge. It is simple … and just perfect.