East Boston’s Tony Messina was announced as the 2019 winner of the prestigious James Beard Award. Messina, head chef and partner at UNI in Boston, was presented with the coveted award at the 28th Annual James Beard awards in Chicago.
Messina was named ‘Best Chef in the Northeast’ at the award ceremony.
This is Messina’s second nomination and third year as a semifinalist for Best Chef: Northeast.
“As someone who was born and raised in (East) Boston, I can’t describe what this honor means to me,” said Messina. “It’s incredible to even be considered alongside such a talented list of local chefs, and I’m proud to represent New England cuisine from a global standpoint. I couldn’t do it without my team at UNI; without them, this would never be possible.”
Growing up in Eastie, Messina spent countless hours in his grandparents’ kitchen cooking elaborate Italian feasts as a young boy, and has been a fixture on the line in Boston restaurants since he began working as a caterer and cook at 14. After a stint shucking oysters and mixing drinks at Legal Seafoods, Messina joined the team at Michael Schlow’s Alta Strada. In 2009, he decided to formalize his culinary training and attend the Cambridge Culinary School. During this time, he staged at some of the best restaurants in Boston, including Radius, Hamersley’s Bistro, Salts, No. 9 Park and Clio. He graduated as valedictorian of his class and returned to Alta Strada as Sous Chef. The food at Alta Strada really spoke to Messina’s heritage – simple, clean Italian food using only the best ingredients.
When Messina heard that Barbara Lynch would be opening a true fine dining restaurant in Boston, he was eager to be a part of the opening and hone his appreciation of haute cuisine. In 2010, he joined the opening team of Menton as Chef de Partie. The food was concise allowing the very few ingredients on the plate to truly shine.
Long a fan of Japanese cuisine and its nuanced artistry, Messina began his search to find the best sushi restaurant in Boston. He heard time and time again that AKA Bistro was pushing the boundaries of traditional sashimi. He called Chef/Owner Chris Chung (an alumni of Uni Sashimi Bar) and asked if he had any openings. He joined the team as Chris’ Sashimi Assistant in 2011, eventually becoming the Assistant Sashimi Chef himself. At AKA Bistro, there were no limits to what sashimi could be, drawing inspiration from France, Italy, Spain and even the United States.
Messina’s next move brought him to Ken Oringer’s Uni Sashimi Bar where he was named Sashimi Chef in September 2012. At Uni, he borrowed from cultures around the world to create dishes like his Duet of Hamachi, which incorporates modern techniques, Japanese ingredients and Mediterranean influence (the loin is paired with red ginger, candied jalapenos and banana glass and the toro matched with a truffle vinaigrette and pork belly croutons).
In 2016, the intimate sashimi bar expanded into the former Clio space to become a full-scale Japanese restaurant serving inventive Asian cuisine highlighting fresh seafood with innovative sashimi and sushi offerings, and utilizing far-flung flavors and ingredients in street food-inspired dishes. With the expansion of UNI, Messina took on the role of Executive Chef and Partner alongside his business partner, Ken Oringer. In 2018, Boston magazine named Messina “Best Outstanding Chef” in their annual Best of Boston issue, and UNI was ranked number one in Boston Magazine’s coveted 50 Best Restaurants issue.