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Monday night, when the James Beard Foundation handed out its coveted culinary awards in New York, Palena chef and co-owner Frank Ruta was at home, trying to solve the mystery of who exactly had won in the Best Chef Mid-Atlantic category. One minute Ruta thought he had, the next he thought he had lost out to Vidalia‘s R.J. Cooper. The foundation itself wasn’t much help. By 5 p.m. today, Ruta still had received no official word from the organization.

What gives? According to a publicist for the Beard Awards, the problems began right at the podium, where chef Marcus Samuelsson read only Cooper’s name, even though Cooper and Ruta had tied for the award. In fact, both of the chefs’ names flashed on the screen behind the presenter. The publicist blamed Samuelsson’s snafu on the script, which listed only Cooper’s name as the winner.

Things got even more confusing on the foundation’s web site, where tech geeks apparently kept moving around the flashing star that indicates which chef has won. Ruta says he received a call last night from a colleague who said the flashing star was next to his name only.

“By the time I got to the Web site and looked at it, which was maybe 15 minutes later…there was a star flashing by both of our names,” said Ruta who couldn’t attend the ceremonies because of family commitments. “And then later on in the evening…I got another phone call, and it said R.J. Cooper’s picture was there and just his name [was] flashing. So we didn’t really know what to think.”

Ruta called the Beard publicist earlier today but received no word back. I told Ruta that the PR firm had assured me both he and Cooper had tied for the award, but the chef was loath to believe it until official word came from the foundation. “It’s like the hanging chad down there in Florida,” Ruta jokes.

Whether he believes it or not, Ruta is indeed official Beard winner, along with Cooper and the Citronelle double bill of Mark Slater (winner for Outstanding Wine Service) and the maestro himself, Michel Richard (for the Outstanding Chef award). Other area nominees included Cathal Armstrong of Restaurant Eve in the Best Chef Mid Atlantic category and Terry Theise of Estate Selections in Silver Spring in the Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional category.

Congratulations to each of the winners and nominees.