Orlando has three James Beard Award semifinalists this year — the Orlando Sentinel

Today, the James Beard Foundation announced its 2023 semi-finalists, three Orlando-based hospitality professionals, including rookies Jimmy and Johnny Tong of The Bento Group in the Outstanding Restaurant category.

The Bento concept with a fast-casual name alone has about 25 locations in Florida, but here at home, the Tong brothers have been instrumental in pollinating Orlando’s vibrant and growing restaurant scene for years.

Their projects include Korean fine dining concept Doshi, The Foreigner, Light on the Sugar, Sugar Dough Bakehouse, Winter Garden’s new sushi concept Norigami, and last year’s Orlando Sentinel Foodie Award winner for Best New Restaurant – the DomuLab concept and its first outing entity, Camille.

This is just to name a few.

“It’s a big surprise!” Johnny Tong told the Orlando Sentinel shortly after the beard was announced, noting that Jason Chen of the Good Salt Restaurant Group — a semi-finalist in the same category last year — broke the news. “He reached out this morning and was so sweet…he got us high.”

The Tong brothers, the children of Taiwanese immigrants, grew up in the restaurant business and made Orlando the foundation of their business, opening their first Bento Hotel downtown in 2008.

“We’ve been growing it all over the state before giving some new chef-led concepts and focused our attention on making Orlando a great culinary city.”

Also in the running is Henri Musou of Kabuki Sushi for Best Chef, South, a recurring nod from 2022. Musou’s first semifinal recognition came in 2020 in Rising Star Chef, a category reserved for budding cocaine owners under 30. This master and since then the kabuki concept has grown exponentially.


“It definitely motivates me to continue to lead my team and my business because we’re expanding aggressively and working on different concepts and I feel fortunate,” Musso told the Orlando Sentinel. “It’s a constant pat on the shoulder and it’s really rewarding, it tells me how far I’ve come in my career and I’m still motivated to keep going.”

Considered among the nation’s most prestigious culinary awards, the James Beard Foundation seeks to recognize talent in the various classes.

“This is always an exhilarating moment as we begin the awards cycle and recognize the outstanding achievements of individuals and teams across the country,” Claire Reichenbach, CEO of the James Beard Foundation, said in a press release. “After a year of fundamental changes, we look forward to building on the progress that has been made, and celebrating those who are paving a better future for all of us – through their talents and crafts, service to others, and commitment to making a better and more sustainable industry.”

2023 marks Chef Henri Mousso's third James Beard Award semi-finalist.  Second for Best Chef, South.

Nominees will be announced on Wednesday, March 29, and the winners will be celebrated at the James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards Gala on Monday, June 5, 2023, at the Lyric Opera in Chicago.

“It’s a really great honor,” says Jimmy Tong of the Bento Group. “We are incredibly humbled to be recognized alongside these incredible pioneers in this industry. Without our hardworking team and supportive community, this would not be possible.”

Brother Johnny feels the same.

“[The semifinalist designation] is an affirmation of what we’re trying to do, but more than that, awards and nominations like this are great for bringing more attention to the scene here. My brother and I really want to push the city’s food scene forward by working with local chefs and bringing chefs here from out of town as well… We want to continue to shine the Orlando spotlight, to help make the city a national culinary destination. “

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