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Longtime friends Ann Marshall and Carlyle Watt were surprised to discover they are both semifinalists for a prestigious culinary award.

When Marshall saw that Watt was also among the James Beard Foundation Award semifinalists, she screamed.

“I was at the airport in Atlanta, and I was like, ‘Carlyle’s on here, too!’ We go way back. Our families have always been really close,” Marshall said.

Watt said, “I feel really proud that we get to share the honor.”

Marshall is an Orangeburg native and 1997 graduate of Orangeburg Preparatory School who now lives in Charleston. Watt is a Denmark native and 2001 graduate of OPS who now resides in Anchorage, Alaska.

Both are both lovers of food and were listed among Restaurant and Chef Award semifinalists for the 27th annual James Beard Foundation Awards.

Selected from a list of more than 24,000 online entries, the prestigious group of semifinalists in 21 categories represents a wide range of culinary talent.

Watt has excelled as the head baker and executive chef at Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop in Anchorage.

Marshall has proven herself to be among the nation’s top wine and spirit professionals at High Wire Distilling Company in Charleston, a business she and her husband, Scott Blackwell, co-own.

Watt said he was surprised and honored to be a contest semifinalist.

“It’s pretty significant. The award is the end-all-be-all of culinary achievements. I feel like I’ve accomplished everything I could ever want to accomplish,” Watt said.

“The people on that list with me in the baking category are people that I have been studying for the past six years, learning their techniques and putting them to use at our bakery,” he said. “You have to couple their techniques with Alaska ways and ingredients, and we’ve come up with something pretty unique up here.”

Marshall said she and her husband were not even thinking about the award, much less securing a semifinalist spot. She said they are in good company, though.

“It’s such a big honor. The beverage award is a national award, so it is just an overwhelmingly incredible honor to even be on that list of 20 producers with people … who are peers that we have met and known and have spent time with,” Marshall said. “It’s just an incredible honor to even share print space with them.”

She said Charleston is a vibrant community with a rich food and beverage culture, with some of its top chefs having already snagged James Beard honors.

“These are people who we spend a lot of time with and love to be around. We’re constantly challenging each other on ingredients. Distilling is very different from cooking, but it’s just interesting to hear their take on ingredients that we’re all using,” Marshall said.

Jimmy Red Corn, for example, is among the heirloom grains which they are using to produce bourbon, but which has also been a favorite ingredient of Lowcountry chefs. That specific corn variety almost went extinct, but is now thriving.

Marshall and her husband owned a bakery before entering the distillery business, where they’ve explored their curiosity and fascination with how spirits are made. They have used some of their baking experience in their new field, something which Marshall says sets their distillery apart from others.

“We brewed in our kitchen when we lived in Greenville, and we’re curious about how the different ingredients we’re using for beer would translate into a spirit. With the bakery we had worked with a lot of alternate grains and with sorghum and various kinds of wheat,” she said.

“So it was kind of a natural segue for us to use that knowledge and take it into a different format. We were curious as to what would happen if we cook some heirloom corn (rather than a commodity corn) and mashed and distilled those. So we’ve been working with a lot of specialty crops.”

Marshall said, “What we’ve found is these heirloom specialty grains have a wildly different flavor.”

She and Scott have been working with a culinary historian, a seller of special grains and a researcher to help “identify, find and then repropagate a lot of these grains that have been lost over time.”

Watt said the rural neighborhood bakery where he works in Anchorage also offers up unique flavors. It is located in one of the first neighborhoods built in Anchorage.

“We are a bread bakery that makes artisanal sourdoughs. We use heirloom grains that farmers in the Pacific Northwest are striving to preserve and keep going, including emmer, einkorn and spelt berries. I guess through global warming, Alaska has recently become a suitable climate for growing wheat,” Watt said.

He added, “We buy the grain, we mill it and then we make our sourdough bread with it. That’s really exciting for us as bakers.”

Watt said he worked as a personal chef in Anchorage for two years after graduating from culinary school. He worked for one family before starting a successful band and later taking a job at the Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop to support his music habit.

“I appreciate the ethics and the products that they were putting out. I had a lot to learn from them, so I started working the early morning shift so I could play music at night. Over the years I have become the head baker and executive chef there,” he said.

Watt and his wife, Theresa, are the parents of one daughter, Lily. He is the son of Denmark couple Larry and Bruton Watt and says his hometown was a big influence on his culinary career.

He said, “Denmark was just one of the richest culinary parts of the world you could come from. Everybody had their specialty. My neighbor across the street was a world champion barbecue guy, the lady down the street made the famous 13-layer chocolate cake, and then you had the man down the street who would just make giant batches of collard greens and black-eyed peas.

“Everybody valued food so much, and they valued the simple ingredients that are so relevant to the history of the area. I just really came to value that and have taken that background and applied it to what we can grow up here in Alaska. I think that philosophy has done well up here. People are hungry for something that is real and authentic these days in the culinary world.”

He said he appreciated the support of his parents and that “to be able to have that ability to make someone’s day through food is one of the best things I can do.”

Larry said he was proud of his son – and Marshall – for having become semifinalists for the James Beard Foundation Award.

“His mother and I are very proud of him. He got a set of pots and pans for Christmas when he was in the eighth grade, so he’s been cooking for a long time. He always aspired to go into culinary arts, but his mother and I put our foot down and made him get four-year degree first,” he said. His son was accepted into the Culinary Institute of America after earning a business degree from the University of Mississippi.

Marshall, the daughter of Orangeburg resident Theresa Marshall, said she had plans to attend law school after graduating from Duke University as an English major before being “bitten by the entrepreneurial bug.”

She had begun working for her husband’s baking company which was later sold to General Mills, and the rest was history.

“I decided that I would probably never work for anybody else again,” she said.

Marshall said Orangeburg was a perfect small-town environment to live in.

“It’s such a great community of people and good friends that still live there. My mom’s great friends all still live there. It’s just a really nurturing environment and definitely gave me the freedom to really have the confidence to do almost anything, and that includes opening a distillery in the South,” she said.

Her mother, Ann, said her daughter “has so many talents - this recognition really does not surprise me. She has always done her best at whatever she was involved in, and I am so very proud of her. I am also proud of Scott. Together, they are a great team, and I am pulling for them to be in the James Beard final five!"

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Contact the writer: dgleaton@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5534. Follow "Good News with Gleaton" on Twitter at @DionneTandD.

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Staff Writer

Dionne Gleaton has been a staff writer with The T&D for 20 years. She has been an education reporter, regional reporter and currently writes features with an emphasis on health.

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