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Food for Thought

For the first time in their 24-year history, the James Beard Foundation Awards heads to Chicago.  

HITTING THE HIGH NOTES The foyer of Lyric Opera of Chicago during the post-awards reception 

If you happened to dine out on a recent Monday evening—May 4, to be exact—you might have noticed that Chicago’s restaurants were unusually quiet. But that’s what happens when you have the country’s most prestigious culinary awards ceremony going on in your own backyard: About 2,000 or so of the top chefs, restaurateurs and spirits professionals from around the country, including most of our own upper echelon, were having a party of their own. After 24 years of calling New York City home, the James Beard Foundation Awards and the gala reception that follows them decided to shake things up and move its annual event, red carpet and all, to Chicago. 

“Here we are at the beautiful Chicago Opera House. It’s a reminder that our culinary arts deserve the same recognition as the performing arts,” said Susan Ungaro, president of the James Beard Foundation, at the opening of the ceremony. “Chefs and restaurateurs have become America’s best-loved celebrities... Eating well has become the national pastime.” I couldn’t agree more. Even though I’ve been a food writer for 15 years, I found myself star-struck on the red carpet by the talented food industry people walking by. There was Thomas Keller of The French Laundry and Per Se, who, while reluctant to reveal a favorite Chicago restaurant, did admit to having a “wonderful experience” at Logan Square’s Fat Rice. TV host Andrew Zimmern cited “the backyard of Rick Bayless’ house for whatever snacks he’s cooking late at night” as one of his favorite local dining spots. “I have a good life,” he said. (Note to Zimmern: Yes, you do.) 

Chicago restaurateur Alpana Singh, who was part of the small group that initiated the conversation about bringing the Beards here, spent the morning in “glam-squad mode.” She told me that when she called Tanya Baker, executive chef at Singh’s The Boarding House, to tell her she was a semifinalist for the rising star chef award, Baker “almost crashed her car.” 

Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises founder Rich Melman, whose acceptance speech for his Lifetime Achievement Award was one of the ceremony’s most touching moments, predicted that having the Beard Awards in Chicago—the festivities will be returning for the next two years—could mean more people and businesses moving here. As far as receiving his award at a time when he’s still as active as ever? “I remember a quote by Charles Schulz that said once you’re over the hill, you begin to pick up speed,” said Melman. “I’m going to go with that.”

Co-chairs Grant Achatz, Rick Bayless and Paul Kahan 

One Off Hospitality Group’s Donnie Madia said if he won for outstanding restaurateur, he was going to give credit to his mom and aunt, “who taught me what it is to serve people.” He did and did—plus he thanked his partners. “No one person is bigger than the whole,” said Madia, who made a quick dash back to the stage to also thank his wife and son. 

Master of Ceremonies Alton Brown did his best to keep things moving, even alluding to bringing out a Taser if speeches got too long. The show included musical numbers from local blues artist Shemekia Copeland and a short comedy film titled The Chef Whisperer with cameos by top local chefs—Rick Bayless, Grant Achatz, Tony Mantuano, Stephanie Izard, Takashi Yagihashi, Mindy Segal, Art Smith—and politicians. It stars Second City’s John Hartman and is hilarious. Charlie Trotter’s name was brought up numerous times, including by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who said, “Charlie Trotter would be so proud of this evening.” Achatz asked for a moment of silence for chef Homaro Cantu, who recently passed away. Throughout the evening’s numerous speeches—including those from the other Chicago winners, The Violet Hour (outstanding bar program) and Bureau of Architecture and Design (outstanding restaurant design, 75-seat-and-under category, for Brindille)—one theme came up over and over again: the importance of family. Or as Hungry Mother’s Barry Maiden, winner of best chef Northeast, said, “In an industry that requires so much of us, my son has revealed the importance of finding balance. So, my wish for all of you is to hold that lesson close, take in the moment, and stop and smell the mirepoix.”