THE SECOND YEAR FOR THE JAMES BEARD FOUNDATION Awards in Chicago kicks off with an impressive list of local nominees and the assurance that we will keep at least one award here after the show—all five nominees for Best Chef Great Lakes are from Chicago chefs. We might win a couple of others, too.

Let’s start at the top—Outstanding Restaurant, an award that you can only win officially if you’ve been around for ten years, and can only win practically speaking if you’ve been really, really good that whole time. Alinea is 10 this year, and has to be considered a pretty strong favorite for the award, since it’s frequently ranked the best restaurant in the U.S. The others are certainly well liked (they include Momofuku Noodle Bar and The Spotted Pig in New York) but voters have probably been to Alinea, they certainly know Grant Achatz—maybe Momofuku has more buzz in some senses, but surely Alinea commands the most respect on the list—and it’s had the most influence throughout the industry in its decade of existence. It’s DiCaprio acting with a bear, a presumptive favorite.

Also from Achatz-world is the one Chicago name on the Rising Star Chef of the Year list (which Jimmy Bannos Jr. of The Purple Pig won two years ago): Jenner Tomaska of Next. Who? you ask. Good question—he’s received comparatively little notice at Next next to Achatz and executive chef Dave Beran (who was up for the same award in 2012); the only press I can think of for him is, well, some I was involved in, his 2014 Key Ingredient episode. But obviously his industry profile is higher, though I would guess one of New York’s three nominees is a likelier winner, like the one from Momofuku Ssäm Bar, Matt Rudofker. It’s an Achatz-Chang fight to the finish! Maybe.

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Courtesy: Chicago Reader

As noted, Best Chef Great Lakes has to go to Chicago, and maybe this will be the year for chef/movie star Curtis Duffy of Grace, previously nominated in 2011 and 2014. Though again, maybe it could go to the chef behind our Momofuku-like hip Asian place, Abe Conlon of Fat Rice. Or Lee Wolen of Boka, Erling Wu-Bower of Nico Osteria, or Andrew Zimmerman of Sepia, now the grand old man in this category, where he’s been nominated every year since 2012—that first year, I interviewed him for Grub Street Chicago about the terror of losing an honor you’ve won before, so the good news for him is, he still hasn’t had to face not being a nominee.

The total domination of this category by Chicago—until now we’ve taken four of five nominees in every year I can remember—proves the validity of a frequent complaint by Beard-watchers, that it’s time to have a Chicago-only category. The money and press attention advantage of our city can shut out worthy chefs from elsewhere in the midwest, and distorts the categories in weird ways. Thus, Jonathon Sawyer in Cleveland competes against Chicago (though admittedly, he won last year, so it can be done), but Justin Carlisle of Milwaukee’s Ardent is nominated in Best Chefs Midwest—despite the fact that Ardent is not only closer to Chicago, it’s three blocks from Lake Michigan and closer to a Great Lake than any of the Great Lakes nominees. For a number of reasons, it would make more sense to spin Chicago off and let the chefs in 1-2 million-population midwestern markets compete against each other.

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In other awards, now that Donnie Madia (of Blackbird etc.) finally won Restaurateur of the Year last year, the mantle passes to our most aggressive restaurant group in terms of opening top-notch places in super sized venues, Boka Group and owners Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz. Pastry chef Meg Galus—who surprisingly did not win Best Pastry Chef locally at the Jean Banchet awards a couple of months ago—is also up for Boka (she also does, equally well, desserts for Momotaro and Swift and Sons). A good pastry chef at NoMI (note qualified praise), she’s really come into her own with Boka Group and I wouldn’t argue with anyone calling her the best in the city right now.

Topolobampo got its annual service nomination, as did North Pond, while Sepia is nominated for Arthur Hon’s wine program. And pretty remarkably, we landed two of the three restaurant design awards—for restaurants in the same building, no less, the Pritzkers’ spare-no-expense rehab of the Chicago Athletic Association. Land and Sea Dept. and Mode Carpentry were nominated for Cherry Circle Room, while Roman and Williams Buildings and Interiors was nominated for the (literally and figuratively) over the top design of Cindy’s, the rooftop restaurant.

In other ways you could say we proved a little thin—we didn’t place on the Outstanding Chef list, nor on Best New Restaurant; we may have opened a lot of new cocktail bars, but the Beards didn’t notice. All the same, it’s a strong enough showing for a host city, and if Alinea wins in its first year of eligibility for Outstanding Restaurant, it’ll be a big Chicago night.



AND THEN THERE’S THE MEDIA awards. Here’s the complete list of currently affiliated Chicago journalists nominated this year:

Yeah, that’s right. Zip, bupkis. The only Chicago media nomination is For Grace, the film about Curtis Duffy by ex-Tribune staffer Kevin Pang and Mark Helenowski, which is nominated in the Documentaries category. No articles; no podcasts; no TV segments; and so far as I can tell, none of the books, though one is published by Chicago Review Press (but it’s about California wine and by a writer from Boston).

A few years ago you could easily have had the Tribune, the Reader, WBEZ and Steve Dolinsky all running into each other over the free-range chicken of the media awards. What happened?

This is a real low from just a few years ago when you could easily have had the Tribune, the Reader, WBEZ and Steve Dolinsky all running into each other over the free-range chicken of the media awards (which are held in New York regardless). What happened?

There’s no obvious universal cause, and as I’ve noted before, sometimes it’s just a year when people who’ve been nominated before are between high-profile, award-worthy stories (or won last year, like Dolinsky and Rick Bayless for their podcast The Feed). Next year, at least, there should be cookbooks in contention, like the Fat Rice one. But the environment has not seemed very interested in deeper digging, deeper feelings, at least not since Pang’s online version of the For Grace story (which didn’t get nominated, but was certainly given all the resources to be competitive).

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This is all the more striking because you look at the names from elsewhere that did get nominations and we’re kind of in a golden age of ambitious food writing, even as conventional outlets dry up. The magazines Lucky Peach, from New York, or Garden & Gun, from Charleston; the Southern Food Alliance’s podcast Gravy which manages to deal with policy and a lot of politics while still making you hungry; blogs like Roads & Kingdoms, city magazines from Minneapolis-St. Paul or Seattle, a ton of wine or beer podcasts or video blogs. Even more pop sites like Eater and Thrillist put up serious in-depth work and compete for awards. Why doesn’t more work like that come from here?

I won’t say anything against the Tribune here, because they’ve hired a bunch of good people lately and they deserve time to see what they make of them. But I’m still baffled by WBEZ, which won Beard awards back to back for food radio in 2012-13, and then launched a food podcast—only to lard it up with cross-promotional guests from other public radio shows who had little to say about food, and then killed it to run other stations’ hot podcasts. (Kudos to Monica Eng and Louisa Chu for reviving what’s now called Chewing on their own, then—but still, what did the station gain by making them do that?)

Or let’s go back to Jenner Tomaska. I know, who? Why does the industry know him and we hardly do, in his own town? Time Out Chicago never aimed for awards, but when they were around in full force, and treating neighborhood chefs as a form of celebrity, you would have heard something about him—about a drink he invented, where he went for sushi, what his new tattoo looked like, something. (For the record: no idea if he drinks, has tattoos, any of that.) Today, search his name on Google and by page 2, it’s his own tweets. It’s not just that there isn’t award-caliber writing—there’s not that much writing, period, past the openings of the week.

Never has the subject of food in Chicago been a richer one—as the restaurant nominations show. Anyone up for making something of it?


Michael Gebert is a three-time James Beard Foundation Award nominee and won in 2011, and is the so-far-unawarded editor of Fooditor.

Sparrow Black 2019


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