The prestigious James Beard Awards celebrated its annual gala and 25th Anniversary in Chicago on Monday, the 4th of May. The James Beard Foundation, established in 1986 in honor of James Beard (referred to as the Dean of American Cookery by the New York Times) is a nonprofit professional organization that promotes culinary talents and arts across the country by recognizing and bestowing awards on chefs, hospitality and wine industry professionals as well as humanitarian and lifetime achievement awards.
The decision to move the awards from New York to Chicago had invoked mixed reactions around the country and was a topic of conversation even at the gala and other events. The city of Chicago of course welcomed them with full fanfare, and Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and Governor Bruce Rauner were on stage at the gala to pitch for the city. The stately Lyric Opera of Chicago was the site of the gala and traffic was stalled in the immediate area on. Monday night as the hordes of tuxedo-clad men and bejeweled ladies descended for the black tie event. The pricey tickets that ranged from $450-500 were obviously not a deterrent, as evident from the huge crowds lining the entrance while culinary celebrities (including many familiar faces from the Food Network and Bravo) posed for the paparazzi lined up outside. My cab driver commented that these folks look unlike any cooks or chefs he had ever seen and maybe we had come to a fancy wedding by mistake.
This year’s gala opened to the “Let’s Get It Started” Black Eyed Peas hit playing followed by a montage of previous years galas accompanied by “Eye of the Tiger” and “Ice Ice Baby” (Wonder who picked the music…). The event is often referred to as the Oscars of the food world, prompting current President Susan Ungaro to refer to the master of ceremonies Alton Brown as the Billy Crystal of the JBF in her opening remarks.
Alton Brown, creator of Good Eats, author, and host of numerous shows on Food Network such as “Iron Chef” and “Cutthroat Kitchen,” revealed yet another talent during the evening as accompanied by his band ( who knew) he sang his ‘Meat Goes On” version of the popular Sonny and Cher number. Hopefully it was a one-time event as it was unclear whether the audience snapped their fingers to the beat or if they were hoping to snap him off the stage. Thankfully there were better musical talents like Shamika Copeland to entertain the crowd. The humor element was provided by the comedic clips of the ingenious ways in which previous winners took care of their awards. Some chose to sleep with them while others like April Bloomfield of the Spotted Pig in NYC maintained the shine with good old olive oil, salt, and lemon, which left some in the audience wondering about the flavor profile. The brand placement all over the event and big name sponsors probably meant some hefty goodie bags were carried off by the lucky winners.
The Gala Co-Chairs Grant Achatz, Rick Bayless, and Paul Kahan (all previous JBF winners from Chicago) were intermittently on stage to introduce nominees and awards while Carla Hall of “The Chew” and “Top Chef” shows updated the audience about the past ceremony in NYC for the winners of Book, Journalism, and Broadcast awards. The very tall Hall was joined on stage by the comparatively diminutive French chef Daniel Boulud for the update. Host Alton Brown was colorful (language) and feisty on stage, a probable consequence of the Billy Crystal reference or the high from his musical debut. The packed auditorium watched and cheered as the various awards were handed out and long (sometimes way too long speeches) ensued. There were some emotional speeches that resonated with industry crowd as many of us have gone down that road while others were examples of how focused hard work brings rewards and James Beard Awards. Brown, while discussing statistics from previous years, mentioned a total of 6000 minutes of speeches. Wonder where the count stands after this year and if that was what prompted him to announce his owning a taser. Future winners beware and moderate the length of the thank you speeches or you might get jolted off stage!
The American Classics were a favorite category as family establishments and small operations from around the country were recognized, and small films of each and their backstory screened were both interesting and inspiring. Probably the most anticipated awards were:
The Rising Star went to Jessica Largey of Manresa, Los Gatos, CA
Best New Restaurant to Bâtard, NYC
Outstanding Chef to Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern, NYC
Outstanding Pastry Chef to Christina Tosi of Momofuku Milk Bar, NYC
Outstanding Restaurant went to Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns, NY
Best Bar to Violet Hour, Chicago
Best Wine Program to A16, San Francisco
The regional Best Chef winners were:
Mark Ladner, of Del Posto, NYC
Aaron Franklin, of Franklin Barbeque, Austin, Texas
Jonathan Sawyer of Greenhouse, Cleveland
Spike Gjerde, of Woodberry Kitchen, Baltimore
Gerard Craft, of Niche, Clayton, MO
Barry Maiden, of Hungry Mother, Cambridge, MA
Alon Shaya, of Domenica, New Orleans
Blaine Wetzel, of Willows Inn, Lummi Island, WA
Jason Stanhope, of Fig, Charleston, SC
Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinki (the cutest couple on stage) of State Bird Provisions, San Francisco
I finally understood the context of the fried chickpea amuse at Del Posto in NYC when Mark Ladner thanked his mom during his acceptance speech for introducing him to his first love: chickpeas. When I met Mario Batali at the Alinea party he told me to root for Del Posto and Ladner that night, and so chef Batali I take some of the credit and you can thank me at your convenience. Thomas Keller appeared briefly on stage with Daniel Boulud, the silver Bocuse d’Or trophy in hand (yet again Boulud was on stage with a very tall co-host) to celebrate the remarkable win of the American team in the most prestigious culinary competition in the world. Finally American cuisine gets the recognition it deserves on the global food scene.
The three and half hour event resulted in crowds of people stepping out into the reception area outside while 30 chef’s teams set up for the latter part of the evening when the hungry, thirsty hordes descended to snag an elusive taste of the food while the numerous bottles of donated wine, Champagne, and spirits fueled the enthusiasm and kept the glasses topped. The venue was probably not adequate to accommodate the crowd and people rubbed shoulders and more with celebrities like Dan Barber, Curtis Stone (with his stunning wife Lindsey Price) Michael Cimarusti, David Chang, April Bloomfield, Christina Tosi, Wylie Dufresne, Ludo Lefebvre, Michel Nischan, Andrew Zimmerman, and some of the lucky winners and disappointed nominees. I issued my Trinidad Moruga Pepper challenge to Andrew Zimmerman, and we’ll see if he takes it on.
Michel Nischan, who won the well deserving Humanitarian of the Year Award, stole the men’s fashion show with a grey and pink-tipped tuxedo, and we had an interesting conversation at Chef’s Night Out about sharing nutritional benefits of food with others through cooking, as I do with my Ayurveda-based cuisine. Wylie Dufresne, who was one of the inductees into the “Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America” at the JBF is such a down to earth man who has never changed over the years. We had just chatted recently at the All-Star Chefs French Masters event in LA and discussed international food trends, some of them revolving around his recognizable plating style. His wd~50 closed last fall, and almost a year ago some of the biggest chefs from all over the world had gathered for the Gelinaz event in NYC to celebrate this very likable chef.
It was a joy to meet Dan Barber and Dana Cowin, Editor-in-Chief of Food & Wine Magazine. We spoke about her experience at Noma-Japan when Rene Redzepi took his team oversees for a six week pop-up to Tokyo. The very happy Dan Barber was enjoying his win and graciously accepting the best wishes of his peers, as he has truly taken the national conversation about food in a new direction. I also met the Lopez family, winners of the American Classic for their Oaxacan Guelaguetza restaurant in LA who were glad to be in the list of the 25 Best Restaurants of LA in my feature for Gourmet magazine. Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo of Animal in LA, who were nominees that evening, also stopped by to chat. They were on my list along with Michael Cimarusti of Providence, and incidentally all three were sporting beards (these were the Beard awards after all).
Cimarusti will be cooking a four-hands dinner with Mauro Colegreco of Mirazur, France this October, after which our mutual friend Colagreco will be visiting the Southland. The other “Greats” as is de rigueuer now had their entourages in tow, some with their directors of communication and publicists to deal with admirers and those wanting to take selfies as a memory of the evening. The star-studded (Michelin and TV) evening ended close to midnight as guests sped away to the after parties all over town.my next stop was Aviary the lounge adjacent to Next, another popular spot by Grant Achatz and partner Nick Kokonas.
The weather in the “Windy City” was appropriately rainy, windy, and cold over the two days of events, and on the evening preceding the gala chefs braved the elements to partake of food and drink at the “Chefs Night Out” at the Montgomery Club in downtown Chicago. It was a jam-packed industry-only event with food, multiple hosted bars, and chefs from all over the country, though I spent time looking for a good cocktail and forgoing Bulgarian wine in my search. It was a Who’s Who of chefs, nominees, and previous winners, and chefs who had cooked at the James Beard House in Greenwich Village in NYC the prior year (which included myself) were present as well. It was wonderful to connect with Chef Thomas Keller, and once French Laundry reopens after the renovation I will continue our conversation in Napa. Enrique Olvera, the Mexican Chef whose newly opened Cosme, NYC was a contender for the Best New Restaurant award, was in a optimistic mode at the bar and told me that America has been good to him and NYC has welcomed him warmly. I had only one complaint: that since he is spending more time at Cosme the annual Mesamerica event in Mexico City been postponed to later this year or next. I do hope it comes back like MAD in Copenhagen which is also sadly not taking place this year. The Gibson’s Restaurant Group generously hosted this booze and food-fueled shindig for the premier cooks in the industry, who of course made a beeline for the food trucks parked outside as they exited the event in the wee hours of the morning. It was a fun-filled evening, with food and drink overload and an opportunity to hang out with others from the industry and compare notes and meet many long admired personalities.
Many local restaurants and chefs hosted events around the city with collaborative dinners and guest chefs that included RPM Steak, who had famed Italian butcher Dario Cecchini, as guest chef while Grant Achatz’s Alinea celebrated its 10th anniversary with a private event where the guest list included Mario Batali, Ming Tsai, Jose Andres, Thomas Keller, and other food luminaries. Grant Achatz graciously stopped by to chat during the busy event and said his team had been working nonstop for almost 48 hours and they would be keeping the momentum through the next two days. I took the opportunity to rib Jose Andres about his unavailability to meet stateside. In a recent celebration for Albert Adria’s thirty years as a chef, Achatz and I, along with Chef Andres, are some of the few people included on the video montage prepared for the event in Barcelona.
Of all the iconic Alinea tastes that I enjoyed at the event, my favorite was undoubtedly the black truffle ravioli being prepared and served in the kitchen while the Billecart Salmon Brut flowed freely at the bar. My tempura on a cinnamon stick that was smoking at one end decided to light up in a giant flame, but a dunk in my champagne thankfully solved that crisis. The hot cold potatoes served like a shot in wax cup reminds me of Mugaritz and Andoni Aduriz’s clay covered potatoes and stones. The helium-filled candy balloons were a fun challenge as guests were instructed to kiss the air out before enjoying the sticky remains (easier said than done). Almost all of the local restaurants, bars, and pubs got great exposure and did a lot of business some throwing their own parties and events. I spotted familiar faces tasting, testing, and maybe getting inspiration at restaurants and bars all over town. Next year the awards return once again to Chicago and the tabulation of next year’s list of nominees (and the nail-biting) has probably already begun!
Cheers to the JBF for promoting, inspiring, and nurturing the talent in the food industry and celebrating the diversity of cuisines that are now a part of our country’s heritage!