PARDON ME IF I REPEAT MYSELF, but that’s partly what this is about—innovation versus the same old, same old.
Let’s start with innovation. Chicago has a lively, innovative food scene. And though the James Beard Foundation Awards are something of a lagging indicator—it takes a few years for word to percolate to New York—that’s probably a good thing on balance; it means that the Beards don’t get swept up in our enthusiasms of the moment, either. When something new registers in the nominations, it means something.
And quite a bit registered as new in the Best Chefs Great Lakes category—five out of five are from Chicago, sorry Indianapolis and Detroit, but more than that, there’s a definite feeling of a new generation coming into its own this year. It’s not necessarily their first year—Erling Wu-Bower of Nico Osteria is nominated for a third year in a row, and Abe Conlon of Fat Rice and Lee Wolen of Boka are both repeating after being named for the first time last year. While Sarah Grueneberg of Monteverde and the husband-wife time of Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark (Parachute) are all newcomers this year. But in any case, with all of those restaurants except Boka only being open a couple of years, this feels like a pretty fresh list that reflects what’s happening now on our scene.
Nothing else from Chicago seems as interesting, and indeed some have felt that Chicago really didn’t do that well overall this year. Topolobampo, which the Beards have nominated year after year—it’s had nine nominations for Best Service since 2001—is up for Outstanding Restaurant this year (an award won by Alinea last year). The Boka Group guys are up for Outstanding Restaurateur for the third year in a row, possibly learning as One Off did that the Beards are in no hurry to actually give you that. Working for Grant Achatz or Paul Kahan never hurts when it comes to getting noticed, and so Jenner Tomaska (Next) and Greg Wade (Publican Quality Bakery) are both nominated (as Rising Chef and Outstanding Baker respectively). And AvroKO got a nomination for designing Momotaro, which can hardly be argued with.
I could say we got slighted, or we’re not quite measuring up, but I also think food is just better and better in America.
But Chicago didn’t get any attention in other categories where we might have—Julia Momose’s mixology at GreenRiver could have been a contender, for instance, but it isn’t, and neither is anybody’s wine or pastry program. I could say we got slighted, or we’re not quite measuring up.
But I also think food is just better and better in America. Two of the pastry chef nominations are from Cambridge and Birmingham. Portland has nominations for baking and bar program. The other Portland (Maine) is joined in the Outstanding Wine, Spirits or Beer Professional category by places in Delaware and Virginia. And so on. A few years ago Chicago was wresting spots away from New York and San Francisco; now Maine fights Delaware for the title. (Indianapolis and Detroit are just screwed, though. Look, we wish we had a category to ourselves too!) It’s just a good time to eat in America, all over America.
GLOOM HUNG OVER THE MEDIA AWARDS, though, with the announcement that Lucky Peach would cease to be. And it didn’t get any better in Chicago with the announcements of the… nominee. Yeah, that’s right, one. Steve Dolinsky got his eighth nomination in the TV Segment category (or its equivalent in past years) for The Hungry Hound segments on ABC 7. (He’s had various others in other categories, including 2015’s win for The Feed podcast.)
And no one else, at any outlet in town, was nominated for anything.*
Like I said, I’m repeating myself here, so instead of saying What the heck, Chicago, when did we stop aiming for the stars and just decide to do cutesy lists and taste potato chips for a living, I tried to approach the question with more scientific rigor this time. The sample of potential award-winners is necessarily small, and there could be a lot of randomness to who happened to get a really juicy subject in any given year. So I had to ask, is there really evidence to back up the idea that there’s not as much award-worthy stuff coming out of Chicago as a few years ago? To see if there was really a trend, I tallied up every James Beard journalism nominee from a Chicago outlet over the last ten years (winners get an asterisk):
2017—Steve Dolinsky, ABC-7 (TV Segment)
2016—Kevin Pang, Mark Helenowski, For Grace (Documentary)
2015—Steve Dolinsky, Rick Bayless, The Feed (Podcast)*; Steve Dolinsky, ABC-7 (TV Segment); Mike Sula, Chicago Reader (Food and Culture); Kevin Pang, Lucky Peach (M.F.K. Fisher Award)
2013—Mike Sula, Chicago Reader (M.F.K. Fisher Award)*; Nina Barrett, WBEZ (Radio Show)*; Chicago Restaurant Pastry Competition (Video Webcast/Fixed Location); Steve Dolinsky, ABC-7 (TV Segment)
2012—Kevin Pang, Chicago Tribune (Food-Related Columns); Janet Rausa Fuller, Sun-Times (Health and Wellbeing); Nina Barrett, WBEZ (Radio Show)*; Jerome McDonnell, WBEZ (Radio Show); Michael Gebert, Sky Full of Bacon (Special/Documentary); Steve Dolinsky, ABC-7 (TV Segment)
2011—Monica Eng, Chicago Tribune (Environment, Food Politics and Policy); Michael Gebert, Julia Thiel, Chicago Reader (Multimedia Food Feature)*
2010—Allison Cuddy, Richard Steele, WBEZ (Webcast or Radio Show); Rick Bayless (TV Food Personality); Rick Bayless (TV Special); Steve Dolinsky, ABC-7 (TV Segment); Kevin Pang, Chicago Tribune (Multimedia Food Feature)*; Kevin Pang, Chicago Tribune (Newspaper Feature Writing About Restaurants or Chefs); Cliff Doerksen, Chicago Reader (Newspaper Feature Writing)*; Mike Sula, Chicago Reader (Newspaper Feature Writing); Monica Eng, Chicago Tribune (Reporting on Health, Environment or Nutrition)
2009—Steve Dolinsky, ABC 7 (TV Segment); Monica Eng, Phil Vettel, Chicago Tribune (Newspaper Feature Writing About Restaurants or Chefs); Monica Eng, Chicago Tribune (Newspaper Feature Writing Without Recipes); Carol Mighton Haddix, Chicago Tribune (Newspaper Food Section); Mike Sula, Chicago Reader (Multimedia Food Journalism)
2008—Geoffrey Baer, WTTW (TV Food Special); Janet Rausa Fuller, Sun Times (Newspaper Feature Writing Without Recipes); Gaylon Emerzian, Spatullata (Webcast)
Just looking at how many nominations are clustered around half a dozen years ago, it’s pretty hard to argue with the idea that we had a little bit of a golden age then and it’s slimmer pickings now. Does it feel like our media are as excited by our food scene as they were a few years ago? Does it feel like interesting perspectives are popping up all over, from radio to TV to print to the internet?
Or does it feel like things were new and exciting and fun to try out six or seven years ago, and now we’ve settled into turning out rote content? New restaurant to open in River North, write announcement piece from press release, follow up in a month with two-star review calling it promising, start all over again. You can get a nomination for reviewing Chicago restaurants, but the person who actually did was Bill Addison of Eater, who finds a Bohemian Rhapsody in every dining experience he has, whose reviews read like a foodie Roy Batty trying to recite all his memories in the last seconds before his replicant body self-terminates. But you know, God bless his Nexus 9 heart for not settling for the “there’s a little of this, a little of that, all pretty good” that can make restaurant reviewing seem a tired genre.
Meanwhile good people who could tell good stories, about food and people, can’t seem to get a foothold here. Chicagoan Sarah Freeman, who had a notably promising and abbreviated tenure at Eater, wrote a fine story about the chef at a restaurant that I assume its Chicago publicist pointed her to. The restaurant is in Milwaukee; the piece ran at Vice.
I understand that the ego-boost of winning awards may not be the highest priority for legacy media that are struggling to survive. But you know, I have a hard time believing that telling powerfully compelling stories about human beings is really such a bad survival strategy, either, next to generating content about Taco Bell chalupas. I kind of think writing stories you have to read is a pretty good strategy, even now.
Someone was telling me the other day that St. Louis has two local magazines all about their restaurant scene. I don’t even know if that’s true, but it wouldn’t surprise me and if it’s not, it’s probably true in Portland or Charleston or Birmingham. Those places are excited about their food scenes and eager to talk about it. Maybe in five years they’ll be bummed out and just be writing the 12 Best Places to Get Snickerdoodles, but for now, they’re excited about their chefs and restaurants and farmers—and diners. We live in the city the James Beard Foundation Awards felt were important enough to come to. Why aren’t we just as excited, and exciting?
* Yes, in answer to your query, I entered Fooditor—in the Local Impact category, which may or may not have been a miscalculation as it mainly went to dailies doing issue journalism. But you play the odds as you see them; whatever the impact, Fooditor’s certainly local.
Michael Gebert is the editor of Fooditor, such as it is.
Cover photo: courtesy James Beard Foundation
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