PLENTY OF CHEFS WERE INTERVIEWED IN CHICAGO in the days leading up to the James Beard Foundation award ceremony Monday night. Fooditor decided to do something different—talk to the winners after they’d had the chance to celebrate and ruminate on their moment at the podium.

We reached out to as many nominated chefs as we could, and invited them to join us the morning after the awards and all the parties, for a little hangover-curing bubbly—and a chat about what it meant to them, with myself and ace photographer Huge Galdones. Lots of chefs agreed to do it if they won; several went on to win, and though a couple of those wound up sleeping in the next morning anyway, we were happy to be able to congratulate three of our favorite winners in person the next morning, and get their thoughts on their night of triumph. Here they are, and special thanks to the Langham Hotel Chicago for supplying us with a suite and some pastries to welcome them.




THE WINNER: Jonathan Waxman, Barbuto
THE AWARD: Best Chef: New York City

His night: Soho House for a glass of wine with Anna Weinberg. Roister with Grant Achatz (“That’s where all the trouble started”). Big Star (“I cracked my tooth on a tortilla chip. Cracked right in half. I thought there was a stone inside the tortilla chip but it was my tooth”), with Jon Shook, Vinny Dotolo, Tandy Wilson, then The Violet Hour across the street. (“There was no one in there so it was great, totally empty. We got there at 1 am, just to hang out and talk shop.”) Back in bed by 2:30 am at Soho House.

This morning I was thinking that the Beard Awards have gone from small town to big town. They were very secular and only for foodies. Now they’ve become much more universally accepted as something that’s important.

When they first started years ago, I don’t think that outside of the community of chefs and restaurateurs… I don’t think there was much media interest. I got things instantaneously last night and even five years ago, I don’t think that would have happened. I think it’s dramatic how important these things become. Jon [Shook] and Vinny [Dotolo] and I were talking about it last night. The competition now is so fierce for these awards. It’s good though. It creates a good competitive spirit. It forces everybody to be on their game.

There’s certain people who get upset that they didn’t get nominated or win and it’s like—just get your shit together and move on. Narcissism pervades a lot of different industries, and a lot of people think about themselves rather than the big picture.

It’s a crazy business, the food business. Nobody even knows what the word restaurant means. It means to restore one’s spirit. We’re responsible for taking care of somebody’s well-being in a lot of ways. I gave a lecture at Princeton University last month and did you know that 30 percent of the people in the world are malnourished? It’s something you have to be in touch with. You can’t hide behind the stove and pretend it’s not there.

There’s certain people who get upset that they didn’t get nominated or win and it’s like—just get your shit together and move on.

Isolationism, contrary to what Donald Trump wants us to be, is not the way of the world. We should be the pathfinders and leaders and these are hard subjects and there’s not a lot of really great answers out there. But if people globally act as a small village and if the food community really gets together on this thing, I think we could really have an impact. There are a lot of smart minds and we’re the second biggest employer in the country.

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But we’re almost as disorganized as the government is. I think everybody wants the same thing, but people just don’t realize it. It’s not a good thing, people in other countries not getting enough food to eat. It doesn’t bode well. It goes way beyond the farm-to-table and organic. That’s great but there’s a much bigger picture that we need to think about. It has to do with pollution, global warming and food distribution. At the end of the day we need to make sure people get enough to eat, and are eating safe things that are nourishing.




THE WINNER: Alon Shaya, Shaya (New Orleans)
THE AWARD: Best New Restaurant 

His night: Big Star. “Pretty much the whole night. We didn’t stay out too late. Just 1:30 am or so.”

Last year when we won [Best Chef: South for Domenica], I was like Oh my gosh. A James Beard Award. This is a lifetime dream come true. I never thought we’d be in the position to accomplish this, and for it to happen again this year—it’s so unreal. More important than anything is the amount of joy that it can bring to our team. In one second. Nothing else can do that. So it’s really awesome.

The restaurant stood up and had a standing ovation. I didn’t see a video but it’s probably on the security camera. It was crazy emotional. They all burst into cheers  then went downstairs, passing around champagne for the entire restaurant.

Last year it was kind of like, this is great as a culmination of my experience working in restaurants and as a chef in general. This one, I really feel is all about the team at Shaya and how badass they are and how great they’ve done over the last year.

More important than anything is the amount of joy that it can bring to our team. In one second. Nothing else can do that.

And just being really proud of about doing something that was really personal to us in New Orleans. And people really embracing it and not thinking that we were trying too hard at something. It’s been a really personal experience and people have recognized that and it’s the most important thing for us. When I opened Shaya, I was scared to death. It’s a big restaurant, 200 seats, and I was thinking nobody was going to come here for hummus. There’s no way we’re going to fill this entire place for hummus. I was really blown away by the response. This is the food that I grew up with. My grandmother and I cooked together but for so long, I was so into Italian food. I was in complete Italian mode and had pushed all the Israeli food that was in my blood away for some reason. I wasn’t paying attention to it for my whole career.

In 2011, we [him and wife, Emily] went to Israel together and got engaged on that trip and I had a feeling when I was there that I needed to be cooking this food. This is who I am and I shouldn’t be shying away from it. I started putting all this Israeli food on the menu at Domenica and hiding it in the menu—calling hummus chickpea puree—but at some point I couldn’t hide it. Domenica was becoming an Israeli restaurant, so I needed an outlet. That’s when we decided to open Shaya.




THE WINNER: Curtis Duffy, Grace
THE AWARD: Best Chef: Great Lakes

His night: Straight home from Lyric Opera. 

I was in bed by 11 pm which is very not like me, since I’m usually still at the restaurant. I had my daughters and they had school this morning. I just dropped them off.

I was really surprised. I thought for sure Andrew [Zimmerman] was going to win. I didn’t prepare a speech or anything like that. The girls had a great time. They were excited to be there with me. They’re super shy around people but when they’re around Michael [Muser, Grace’s GM] they’re crazy. They call him Tricky Michael.

Before Michelin came to the US 11 years ago, the James Beard award was the pinnacle in an American chef’s career that really validates what you’re doing. That’s always a chef’s dream. I’ve worked for all these chefs that have done that. To finally get that is pretty special and to have my daughters there was even more special. I’ve wanted to take them for a few years but I’ve always felt like they were a little too young.  It’s important to bring them into my world now. They need to see it and start experiencing parts of what I do.

We were open on Sunday, like last year, and had a lot of great chefs dining with us. Chris Kostow and his wife from Meadowood, a few people from Zagat, some folks from Gary Danko. It was a great weekend with chefs in the room and more people are coming in tonight. We’ll have a glass of champagne with all of the staff at the restaurant this afternoon. They’re the ones that make it happen, that really push every day.

I’ve worked for all these chefs that have done that. To finally get that is pretty special and to have my daughters there was even more special.

I’m looking at other projects now, definitely a second project but we’re still looking for spaces. I personally would love to be in Chicago for a second restaurant. I’ve never done that before. I don’t know how that would go down if I’m going from place to place that’s not in the same city. That seems more challenging than running two places. But the focus is always going to be for Grace. The second restaurant will probably be one of my chefs taking it over and making it his. We try to keep the talented ones close to us, mentor them, train them and guide them so when it’s time they can step into that role.

It’s been a crazy three years. When we first opened we talked about being the best restaurant in the world, but now it’s more about being the best restaurant we can every day. We compete against ourselves every day to get better and refine. Maintaining our staff, mentoring them and letting them grow—so they make their community better wherever they end up.


Amber Gibson is a Chicago writer. You can follow her world travels on Instagram @amberyv and Twitter @ambergib.

Huge Galdones is a food & lifestyle photographer, and is currently working on Stephanie Izard’s second cookbook.

Sparrow Black 2019


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