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Arts & Life

Kansas City's Yoli Tortilleria recognized as semifinalist for James Beard Award

022522_cm_YoliTortilleria
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
Yoli Torterilla owners Mark and Marissa Gencarelli have been named as a semifinalist in the outstanding baker category in the James Beard Awards.

It's believed to be the first time a tortilleria has been recognized for a James Beard Award. Yoli Tortilleria is one of two Kansas City-area restaurants named as semifinalists this year.

It took messages from friends, a bit of confusion, then a Google search for Marissa and Mark Gencarelli to finally realize that their Yoli Tortilleria was named a semifinalist for a James Beard Award.

Marissa Gencarelli first got word of the honor when a friend and former Kansas City chef messaged her on Feb. 23, the day the James Beard Award semifinalists were announced, but she thought he was teasing her.

“When I read the message, I thought he must be mistaken. He's confused," Gencarelli said. “So then I Googled my name and then Mark's name. And then there it was, like the first thing in the news feed.”

Yoli was named a semifinalist in the Outstanding Baker category, believed to be the first time a tortilla bakery has been named in any category in the prestigious awards. The other Kansas City-area restaurant named a semifinalist was Carl Thorne-Thomsen, as Best Chef: Midwest, for his Prairie Village, Kansas, restaurant Story.

The announcement felt surreal, Mark Gencarelli said, because they had never heard of tortilla makers being nominated in the Outstanding Baker category, and they had no idea how their bakery found its way onto the Beard radar. Although most categories are sorted by region, the Outstanding Baker category is nationwide.

Elizabeth Hamel, a spokesperson for the James Beard Foundation, said the James Beard team searched for tortillerias or tortilla makers in its past semifinalist winners for all categories but couldn't find any, so it is very likely that Yoli is the first.

Marissa Gencarelli said it's huge for a Mexican bakery to be recognized by the James Beard Foundation, and she is thrilled to likely be the first tortilleria acknowledged by the organization.

"I think that the biggest thing is that, you know, it's very unexpected for us, so we're just very proud," said Marissa Gencarelli. "We're proud of our team and we're proud of everything we have accomplished thus far. It's been five years or so of constantly grinding."

The Gencarellis said they aren't expecting to actually win the award, but they are humbled to be recognized. Aside from all the phone calls and emails they've received congratulating them, it's business as usual at Yoli.

Currently, there are two Yoli locations: the Westside location at 1668 Jefferson Street, where they make flour tortillas and have a small storefront, and the West Bottoms location at 2828 Guinotte Avenue, where they manufacture corn tortillas.

The couple is in the process of moving manufacturing from the West Bottoms to a new, larger space on Southwest Boulevard. Marissa Gencarelli said they plan to have the new production site up and running by this spring.

022522_cm_YoliTortilleria
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
Yoli Torterilla employees Janeth Hernandez flips flour tortillas to cool them while Teo Tolentino prepares to insert tortilla dough through a heated press.

The James Beard Awards have been criticized for a lack of diversity for some time and that's why, in part, there have been no awards the past two years.

The problem came to a head in August 2020, when the foundation abruptly canceled its award ceremony and announced it would not declare any winners. In a statement, the organization cited the pandemic and self-reflection on diversity as the reason for canceling both the 2020 and 2021 ceremonies.

Bonjwing Lee, a Kansas City-based writer and photographer, was a judge for the James Beard Awards for 14 years, but stepped down after the 2020 controversy.

022522_cm_YoliTortilleria
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
Teo Tolentino flips a pressed tortilla toward the stove where Maria Guzman finishes cooking them inside the Yoli Torterilla West Side retail store.

Although Lee said he has not been to Yoli Tortilleria, he's excited for the Gencarellis. Yoli seems like the type of business Americans would want to see recognized, he said.

"This makes a bigger, much bigger difference for this chef and restaurant owner than it does for someone who's already famous," he said.

Lee outlined his problems with the Beard Awards in an October 2020 piece for Eater, which said that when the foundation was scrambling to react to the diversity issue, it violated its own ethics and then attempted to cover it up. The New York Times had the same take, reporting that the Beard Foundation was worried about some chefs' behavior and that there were no Black winners.

The James Beard Foundation subsequently began an extensive internal audit in an attempt to remove systematic bias and made changes to the judging process. But Lee said the problems still exist throughout the restaurant industry.

"We still have not defined in the restaurant industry what fairness is, we still have not defined in the restaurant industry what meaningful change would look like and how we're gonna actually achieve it fairly and with a way that would give everyone dignity,” Lee said.

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