Just five years ago, Rachel Miller was hosting pop-ups around the North Shore to fund the bricks-and-mortar location of her Viet-French fine dining restaurant Nightshade Noodle Bar. Through hard work, determination, talent and vision—and a global pandemic—Miller has turned that celebrated 24-seat restaurant in Lynn into a destination dining spot well beyond the North Shore, with a prix fixe model focused on reinventing restaurant culture to support workers as well as diners.
Now the James Beard Foundation has recognized Miller’s hard work, putting her on the short list for 2023 Outstanding Chef, one of only two chefs from New England to get the coveted nod. The award recognizes “a chef who sets high culinary standards and has served as a positive example for other food professionals, while contributing positively to their broader community,” according to the foundation, which gives out some of the most prestigious awards in the restaurant industry.
“What an honor!! Speechless, proud & humbled. Thank you @beardfoundation, our incredible team and our wonderful guests!” Miller wrote on social media this week.
Dishes like her bone marrow fried rice, crawfish boils and myriad inventive ways with seafood, mixing French and Vietnamese techniques and ingredients, have won much recognition – including BONS awards. And her outspoken focus on creating a more humane workplace for cooks and servers alike might just be a blueprint for the way ahead for fine dining. Miller creates beautiful food while balancing out the traditional wage imbalance between servers and kitchen staff. Rather than paying the tipped minimum wage for servers, she pays them the same hourly rate as the back of the house staff, adding a 20% administrative fee to each check, which is split between the two departments based on hours worked.
“The culture is much better when all are paid fairly,” Miller says, noting that there is still a tip line if diners would like to go above and beyond. The chef, who lives in Lynn, is at the vanguard of what may just be a sea change across the restaurant industry and the awards that celebrate it. As Clare Reichenbach, CEO of the James Beard Foundation, said in a prepared statement, “After a year of fundamental changes, we look forward to building on the progress made, celebrating those paving a better future for us all—through their talent and craft, service to others, and commitment to a better, more sustainable industry.”
The Restaurant and Chef Awards Semifinalists list will be whittled down to five “nominees” on March 29 and the winners of the James Beard Awards® will be announced June 5.