Las Vegas’ Steve Kestler a James Beard Finalist for Best Chef – Southwest

Chef Steve Kestler’s thoughts on being named a finalist for this year’s James Beard Foundation Awards.

Aroma Latin American Cucina is a small, unassuming space in a small, unassuming Henderson strip mall that delivers huge flavors from Central and South America rarely found in Las Vegas and does so with a rustic yet refined finish. The James Beard Foundation has noticed, nominating its chef, Steve Kestler, as a Best Chef – Southwest finalist.

Guatemalan-born Kestler has an impressive résumé, including Bazaar Meat, EDO Tapas & Wine and Bouchon. He came to the US when he was 23, eager to learn everything. Having tried his hand at cuisines from nations and diasporas worldwide, he knew what his focus wanted to be: food he wanted to eat, food from home.

On Becoming a Semi-Finalist

I sat down with Kestler in January to ask about his semi-finalist nomination for the Food and Loathing podcast.

When asked if this was his first nomination, he gushes, “Yes. [This] is the first one [for anything]. It was totally unexpected. I just woke up with a lot of text messages saying… congratulations! And I was like, ‘What is this about? Like, is this really happening?’ It was [happening, and] it was amazing.”

I ask if he had to confirm by checking the official JBFA website. He laughs, “I was checking. And then I went to my wife and [said] hey, take a look at this thing. This is, like, it’s happening.”

“I think [it is] validation of all the hard work that we have been doing the last two years,” he says when asked what this means. “You know, it feels great to finally start, like getting some attention and recognition from all the hard work. Because… we opened here, like, against all odds.”

He is speaking of opening in 2021 when much of the country and the hospitality-driven Las Vegas Valley were still suffering the effects of pandemic shut-downs, supply issues and workforce availability.

“We said, ‘You know what, let’s bet on the food; let’s bet on ourselves. And we’ll see what happens,'” he shares.

“So the first year was a nightmare, like a roller coaster… [many] struggles. Then the second year, it was like, okay, I think this year is looking pretty good.”

All Photos: via Instagram @aromacocinalv

The Drive to Continue

In year three, Kestler says survival is paramount and that “getting this type of attention and recognition, hopefully, will [make] things easier for us.”

Did anyone in the community–which is so obviously rallying around him–mention nominating him during the open call period?

“That’s exactly what I [told my business partner] last year.” Kestler looks thoughtful. “I told him, ‘I guess you can nominate yourself, or your company can put your name over. And I told him… I feel like I will be cheating if I nominate myself or if… somebody [does] it for me,” he continues. “I don’t know who did it. And whoever did it. Thank you so much, you know, because it means… somebody out there believes in us… in what we’re doing. So it means a lot, honestly.”

On Becoming a Finalist

Last week, when Kestler was elevated to a finalist for the award, he sent Neon News the following comment:

“When I think [about being] a finalist for the James Beard Awards, I can’t help but think about the long way I have come since my first job in the kitchen; almost 20 years of discipline, dedication and a lot of effort with only one goal ahead: to make the best food I can day by day.”

The chef continued, “Being a finalist means that everything is possible when you are focused and you are willing to give your life for it; it is validation towards a long journey to achieve a goal. [I am] thankful for everyone [who] has been by my side on this journey. It feels like it has just begun.”

Kestler will be attending the awards ceremony in Chicago on Monday, June 10.