The 25th annual James Beard Awards blew into the Windy City Monday with gusto, as the nation’s top chefs and culinary professionals gathered to attend the annual James Beard Foundation gala.
Widely regarded as the Oscars ceremony of the food world, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner helped kick off the event at the city’s grand Lyric Opera House. It’s the first time Chicago has hosted the event. In past years, that honor went to New York City.
"We get a chance to welcome all of these people. These are the luminaries of the food world coming to Chicago to enjoy our hospitality and, boy, we are being very hospitable.”
- Chef Rick Bayless
But the event still couldn’t shake its East Coast roots. Almost all of the major awards went to New York destinations or people - Outstanding Chef (Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern in New York City); Outstanding Restaurant (Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown, an hour outside of New York City); Best Pastry Chef (Christina Tosi of the New York-based Momofuku Milk Bar); and Best New Restaurant (Batard, also in New York City).
Chicago did walk away with some distinct wins. The Outstanding Restaurateur award went to Donnie Madia of One Off Hospitality Group, which includes notable spots such as Blackbird, Avec and The Publican. And Outstanding Bar Program went to Chicago’s vaunted The Violet Hour.
Elsewhere, the award for rising star chef of the year went to Jessica Largey, the chef de cuisine at Manresa in Los Gatos, Calif. Best service went to the Barn at Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tenn. Rajat Parr of the Mina Group in San Francisco nabbed the outstanding wine, beer and spirits professional.
In the biggest upset of the night, Chicago’s most consistent award - Best Chef: Great Lakes - went to a chef from Cleveland despite being up against four chefs from Chicago. The winner, Jonathan Sawyer of Greenhouse Tavern, got up to the stage and immediately thanked the audience for not booing him. It didn’t go unnoticed by the crowd that no chef from Chicago was able to claim an award.
But the clear winner of the evening was the city of Chicago, itself. An outdoor red carpet had locals gawking as the celebrities arrived amid a flood of photo flashes, followed by a gala that celebrated a new era for the awards.
The event was co-chaired by three of Chicago’s most notable chefs, Grant Achatz, Rick Bayless, and Paul Kahan, who led a post-awards reception featuring food from Chicago and across the country.
“We get a chance to welcome all of these people. These are the luminaries of the food world coming to Chicago to enjoy our hospitality and, boy, we are being very hospitable,” said Bayless.
Tony Mantuano of Spiaggia noted that, “It’s a dream come true for the culinary world, to bring the world to Chicago.”
For those who liked the Chicago setting, they’re in luck: Chicago has secured the James Beard Awards for 2016 and 2017 as well.
Jonathan Waxman, chef and owner of New York’s Barbuto restaurant, says wherever the location of the awards, it’s one of the industry’s most important nights and is “like our little summer camp.”
“You get to hang out, drink all the time, kibbutz all the time. But the other important thing is that we get to connect on a level that you can’t do in your own hometown because you’re working,” he said.