Hell’s Backbone Grill is temporarily closed due to coronavirus, but Utah chefs win nod as finalists for national James Beard award

(Courtesy photo) Winter at Hell's Backbone Grill in Boulder.

The co-owners of Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder are finalists in the 2020 James Beard Foundation’s annual awards competition.

Jen Castle and Blake Spalding were named in the “best chef” Mountain region division, along with three chefs from Denver, one from Aurora, Colo., and another from Jackson, Wyo.

The honor is bittersweet, the owners said on their social media page, because the restaurant — which opened for its 21st season in March — is now temporarily closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“Our season 21 has been, well, super painful,” they wrote. “This lifts us to the moon!”

Last week, the state allowed restaurants to open to sit-down service with restrictions. But Hell’s Backbone Grill will remain closed until at least the end of May, the owners wrote. “We hope to be able to offer patio-only dining starting sometime in June, but even that’s dependent on a lot of currently unknown information.”

COVID-19 has also affected how Castle and Spalding — as well as the finalists in other categories — will learn if they have won a James Beard award, the most prestigious recognition in the food and beverage industry.

The winners will be announced in September, five months later than usual, the foundation said. And rather than the usual extravagant awards gala, the ceremony will be broadcast live on Twitter.

Castle and Spalding have been James Beard semifinalists in previous years, but this marks the first year the co-owners — and their farm-to-table restaurant near the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument — have made it to the final round.

Hell’s Backbone Grill already is one of Utah’s most decorated restaurants, with dozens of local awards and mentions in national publications from Bon Appétit magazine to The New York Times.

Each year, the restaurant harvests some 20,000 pounds of food on its farm and several thousand more pounds of fruit from around the valley; much of it is pickled, frozen and preserved.

Though the doors currently are locked, the restaurant did receive a federal disaster relief loan that allowed the co-owners to bring back servers, bartenders and cooks. Staffers have been weeding, planting and expanding the restaurant farm.

“Our goal,” the co-owners said, “is to grow an even more enormous amount of food than our usual enormous amount of 20,000 pounds!”

The restaurant also has expanded its online store, selling housemade jams, mustards and baking mixes for signature items such as black-powder biscuits, Brown Betty granola, breakfast beans and blue corn pancakes.

This is the 30th anniversary of the James Beard awards. Last year, in an effort to better recognize the country’s exploding restaurant industry and its inclusion of more women and minorities, the foundation added two new categories — including the Mountain region — and reorganized others.

The change helped Utah chefs and co-owners. A record five were named as semifinalists in February.