Oakwood grad snags James Beard semifinalist award for nation’s top pastry chef

Emily Spurlin, who works at Chicago restaurant Lula Cafe, is one of 20 nominees in the U.S.

Credit: Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

Credit: Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

Emily Spurlin, a 2006 graduate of Oakwood High School, has scored the culinary equivalent of an Academy Award nomination, and she credits a former Dayton-area restaurant chef-owner for helping to give her the courage to pursue her dream.

Last week, Spurlin, who works at Lula Cafe in Chicago, was named one of 20 semifinalists in the annual James Beard Foundation awards in the category of Outstanding Pastry Chef. Unlike most of the foundation’s restaurant and best-chef awards that are broken down into regions in the U.S., the pastry-chef award is a national category. The Beard foundation awards are considered the most prestigious in the restaurant industry.

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Spurlin, 32, moved to Oakwood with her family when she was a teenager and finished her last two years of high school there. She earned a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and dietetics at Miami University in Oxford. After graduation, she spent about eight months working as a hostess at the former Rue Dumaine in Washington Twp., a popular foodie destination for 10 years before shutting down in 2017. Rue Dumaine was co-founded by Anne Kearney, the Dayton area’s only James Beard Foundation Award-winning chef.

Before Spurlin’s stint at Rue Dumaine, “I knew I wanted to work in food, but maybe as a food writer or food stylist,” she told this news outlet via email from Chicago. “I had heard horror stories of how inhospitable kitchen culture was for women, and didn't know if I would be cut out for the work.”

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“But working for such a talented and powerful female chef was so inspiring and empowering,” Spurlin said. Kearney “quickly changed my perception and made me realize that there were safe and inclusive spaces out there. Although I was already considering going to culinary school, this really cemented my decision — and Anne has been so supportive of me.”

Credit: Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

Credit: Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

In an email from Tampa, where she now serves as chef at Oak & Ola restaurant, Kearney  called Spurlin “a bright young woman” whose career she has followed since Spurlin enrolled in the Paris pastry program.

“I watched online as she trained and got to see her work come to life,” Kearney said. “The fine art of pastries is a world of precision, and I am sure she has honed her skills through the years and is on her mark.”

Spurlin is a graduate of the École Supérieure de Cuisine Française-Ferrandi pastry program in Paris. After graduation, she began working in restaurants in the culinary mecca of Chicago, including a stint at Bad Hunter, prior to joining Lula Cafe last fall.

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Her decision to enroll in a culinary program after completing her Miami degree came as a surprise to her parents, John and Susan Spurlin of Oakwood.

“But she has just done extremely well,” her proud father said. “She has become a rock star in Chicago’s restaurant scene.”

When Starchefs.com profiled Spurlin as a rising star pastry chef in May 2018, here's what the web site said about her work at Chicago's Bad Hunter restaurant:

“She commands nostalgia, color, and salt in her pastry, and knows how to do delicious in a multitude of forms — biscuits and sourdough croissants for brunch, and glorious, unexpected desserts after 5 p.m.”

Emily Spurlin said the Beard recognition “has honestly never been a goal of mine. It is something I always thought would be a tremendous honor, but felt very out of reach or too big of a dream.”

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“This makes it feel even more significant, since I just didn't imagine it was something that would happen in my career,” Spurlin said. “My litmus test for success has never been about winning awards, and has always been whether I was providing a safe and healthy work environment for my employees, and whether they go on to have success after working for me, or know more than they did when they started. So this feels huge, because I wasn't even expecting it.”

Kearney, a Dayton-area native who earned Beard foundation recognition for her culinary work at her restaurants in both New Orleans and Dayton, said the Beard Foundation semifinalist nomination “will put Emily in a whole new light, on a different level, simply because of the exposure of her name and the company she works for to such a broad and hungry audience.”

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“She will get invitations to participate in all types of fundraising events, where she will expose an even larger audience to her skill set,” Kearney said. “That is where the fun is.”

If Spurlin makes the next cut to the finalists’ round of the Beard awards, “it will get even more exciting,” Kearney said.

And if that does happen, Spurlin will be ready.

“Making it to the finals will be tough, since this is a national category, and there are some real powerhouse pastry chefs’ names on the (semifinalists’) list,” Spurlin said.

Then she added: “Am I already shopping for a gown to wear to the awards ceremony anyways? You bet!”

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