Chef Cathal has eyes on the culinary prize

He wants to walk down the red carpet and come away a winner.

"This better be my year," Cathal Armstrong says with pointed intensity.

Armstrong is the Killiney, County Dublin-born owner and chef at Restaurant Eve, one of the top restaurants in the Washington, D.C. area and a nominee for a James Beard Award.

The "Oscars" of the restaurant world will be announced on May 6 in New York. Armstrong has been nominated consistently since 2007 in the Beard Foundation's "Best Chef Mid-Atlantic" category.

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In 2006, Food and Wine Magazine named him America's "Best New Chef."

If industriousness and proliferation in an economy racked by recession counts, this could be Armstrong's year. In addition to the Eve property, named after his daughter, he also has "Eamonn's-A Dublin Chipper," named after his son, a bistro called "The Majestic," the upscale lounge "PX," and he's opening a new place very soon.

It will be called "Virtue Feed and Grain" and will be the most like home of his establishments, all nestled in Alexandria, Virginia.

"Virtue is opening later this spring and will be a gastro pub with a strong Irish accent," said Armstrong.

Armstrong has served the Obamas and the Bush family, and has come a long way, without formal training, since washing dishes as a teen in an Italian eatery in Dublin.

He came to Washington in 1990 to work at Murphy's Pub for a summer. The capital's then paltry gastronomic landscape meant you needed to go to New York for a decent loaf of bread.

Armstrong worked his way up the kitchen ladder during the 1990s and now he uses the term "empire" to describe his burgeoning interests.

"America is one of the few countries in the world where if you're ambitious and hardworking you can succeed because of the unusual number of different cultures and a respect for success that allows you to get with relative ease others to invest in what you believe," Armstrong told the Echo.

It wasn't the hot summers and demanding kitchen work that kept him here, it was love. He met his wife Meshelle, a Filipino-American, and he decided to stay. "I was incredibly lucky to get her and then a Morrison visa," he said.

As a child, Armstrong's parents maintained a fruit and vegetable garden and sent him off for summers in France. His father's travel business meant their family of eight allowed exposure to a wide variety of cuisines.

A stutter in his father's career transformed the family garden from aesthetic to essential, and Armstrong learned to appreciate food on an elemental level.

"When we originally opened Eve, we were hoping to have a little restaurant, and I always knew it would be good, but I could not have known it would grow in seven years into such a special restaurant.

"I talk to one of my childhood friends, David Burke, and he says that at home they follow the success of the restaurant. He's always on Facebook and the success allows me to go over to Ireland which. A huge part of my heart is there."

Armstrong's fame, both in the U.S. and Ireland, will be needed if he is to win on Friday. But Executive Food Editor at Food and Wine Magazine, Tina Ujlaki, says Armstrong is a strong contender to win this time.

"If asked where to eat in Washington, I always recommend Cathal," she said.

Armstrong's family now have a holiday place near Cloughaneely, County Donegal. There's a bridge there known as the Bridge of Tears as it was a departure point for many Irish emigrant boarding ships never to return home.

"Air travel is relatively inexpensive and modern technology lets us keep in touch, yet we still tend to think that leaving Ireland is a terrible tragedy; but I certainly don't think it is as terrible as it once was," he said.

"There are times when I think I would have preferred to stay in Ireland, and other times I think it was just my destiny to come here and embrace it, and it's turned out better than I ever could have dreamed."