Iowa has become a cornucopia of culinary discovery in all of its regions.
The Iowa Restaurant Association awards recognize the best among the 154,000 people working in the state's food industry.
Those awards will be given during the association's annual ceremony on Oct. 8 in downtown Des Moines, but the winners were released Tuesday.
Here's the list of this year's Celebrating Excellence Industry Awards winners from the Iowa Restaurant Association:
Restaurateur of the Year — Benjamin Smart, Big Grove Brewery, Solon
Chef of the Year — Aaron Holt, RoCA, Des Moines
Emerging Hospitality Leader of the Year — Holly Hintz, Crème Cupcake + Dessert, Des Moines
Restaurant Employee of the Year — Shayna Watts, Fresh Mediterranean Express, Waukee
American Dream Award of the Year — Aman Razdan, Hemispheres Bistro, Bettendorf
Purveyor Partner of the Year — Linda Funk, The Soyfoods Council, Ankeny
Champion Industry — Krista & John Kay, Go Fish Marina Bar & Grill, Princeton
ProStart Educator of Excellence — Joan Stekl, Washington High School, Cedar Rapids
ProStart Mentor of the Year — Drew Beck, Reinhart Foodservice, Cedar Rapids
Small Community Restaurant Neighbor Philanthropist — Unc’s Cheesecakes, Osage
Large Community Restaurant Neighbor Philanthropist — Gusto Pizza, Des Moines
Legislator of the Year — Brian Best, House District 12, Glidden
Legislator of the Year — Mike Brietbach, District 28, Strawberry Point
Here are some highlights from the 2018 Iowa Restaurant Association awards:
He started as a dishwasher in his family's restaurants in Mumbai, India as a teenager. Now, he's realizing the American Dream in many ways.
Aman Razdan, the chef and owner of Hemispheres Bistro in Bettendorf, is this year's recipient for the American Dream Award — given to those who overcome challenges to contribute their talent and dedication to Iowa's restaurant industry.
Razdan, 51, worked at a restaurant formerly called Red Crow Bistro in Bettendorf as a baker and pastry chef. In 2010, he came back as the executive chef. And by 2016, he bought the restaurant.
"I was ready for the turmoil and had prepared myself mentally for the stress and the struggle in renaming and rebranding the restaurant," Razdan said.
Hemispheres Bistro, seating 110 people with a staff of 23, is a global fusion concept with a Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and Latin vibe and French finishings (and some Indian flair, of course).
The dinner menu asks guests to order a protein such as beef tenderloin, a volcano pork shank or jumbo prawns; pick their finishing method or sauce like Bordelaise, bacon jam or Szechuan peppercorn; and then choose two of about 20 noodle, potato, rice or vegetable side dishes.
About 60-70 percent of ingredients on the menus come from local farms, like hydroponic greens, lamb, pork and chicken and Midwestern beef. Razdan said his goal is to make his food accessible and affordable for all.
His love of cooking eclipsed a dream of hotel management. After immigrating to the United States in 1997, he enrolled in the culinary program at Scott Community College, graduating in 2002.
Razadan lives in Bettendorf with his wife and three children, juggling 12-15 hour workdays six days a week.
Take advantage of these state and metro restaurant guides for your next dining discovery:
Aaron Holt, Executive Chef of RoCA on Court Avenue in downtown Des Moines, earned the association's Iowa Chef of the Year award.
"I was very surprised," Holt said. "This is a huge honor. It's really great to be named Chef of the Year among all these great chefs in Iowa."
Holt, 36, who hails from Ellsworth, said growing up in Iowa helped plant the seed for his career. He had plenty of local ingredients at his fingertips and a mother who loved to cook and teach.
Holt cut his teeth in Italian restaurants in Ames, owned by longtime restaurateurs Mark Kassis and Terry Lowman. Holt was put in charge while in college, but decided college wasn't for him and moved into the restaurant industry. By the time Holt was 21, he had landed his first executive chef position at Lucullan's Italian Grill in Ames.
In 2007, Holt jumped at the chance to move to Des Moines and work under Andrew Meek, executive chef of Sbrocco, for four years and help Meek open up Gramercy Tap.
When Meek left, Holt stepped into the role of executive chef of Sbrocco while also lending a hand to Meek's new venture. But Holt commandeered the kitchen at Sbrocco only for a short time. It quickly sold and became RoCA.
Holt has now been the chef of RoCA, a share-plate restaurant with a large cocktail and wine list, since its opening four years ago. He was its first employee, helping with research and development, and creating the menu and decor.
And he's not stopping there. In fact, Holt is currently in the process of pairing his own business with the restaurant.
"Last year, I inherited a 53-acre Century Farm that's been in my family for about 116 years," Holt said. "And this year, I've worked on pairing that with RoCA. I grow a lot of our own vegetables and herbs. It's called Doolittle Family Farms, LLC."
Holt also uses edible flowers and microgreens from the farm as garnishes.
His advice: "It shows that hard work can get you there. You don't always need to go the traditional route of going to school to become successful. For me, that's full circle. I didn't realize I was going to see that in my life."
For someone who may not be a chef or restaurant owner but still embodies the spirit of hospitality, Shayna Watts earned the Restaurant Employee of the Year award.
Watts, 26, has been a manager at Fresh Mediterranean Express, a fast-casual restaurant in Waukee, since 2014. She was nominated by the restaurant owners, Hassan Atarmal and Jeni Betts.
Her day: Start at 11 a.m. Make sure the restaurant is ready to go, crafting gyros and Greek salads, taking orders, helping put together hummus, tzatziki and falafel platters for catering, and prepping in the afternoon to ensure a smooth dinner shift. Whatever needs to be done, she's there doing it.
Her advice: "I would recommend (the restaurant business) highly, especially for those who are younger. It helps teach you independence, how to work for yourself, how to do things properly and how to communicate with people. And it humbles you. And when you move on, you can take that experience with you and push forward in your next career. That's for sure."
These awards were open to any restaurateur, bar or tavern owner, or anyone in the hospitality industry. Recipients were nominated by both restaurant professionals and the public. Affiliate members who sell products to the food service and beverage industry could also be nominated.
An executive committee made up of restaurant owners and previous award winners then review the nominees and determine the winners.
For more information about the Iowa Restaurant Association awards, go to restaurantiowa.com.