The James Beard Foundation’s annual awards gala took place at Chicago’s Civic Opera House on Monday night, showered the nation’s best chefs, restaurateurs, restaurant designers and wine, beer and spirits makers with coveted James Beard medallions.
Hosted by “Modern Family” actor (and noted Instagrammer) Jesse Tyler Ferguson, the 27th-annual event. often shorthanded to the "Oscars of the food world," ended with results spread fairly evenly across the country, with no one city’s dining scene dominating the proceedings. (For a complete list of nominees and winners, go here).
Minnesotans -- and first-time nominees -- Steven Brown of Tilia and Jorge Guzman of Surly Brewing Co. were among the five in line for Best Chef: Midwest. The award went to three-time nominee Kevin Nashan of St. Louis’ Sidney Street Cafe.
First-time nominees who go on to win are rare, but not unprecedented. When James Beard newcomer (and “Top Chef: Texas” favorite) Sarah Grueneberg of Chicago’s Monteverde was named Best Chef: Great Lakes, the home audience went nuts. Topolobampo also did the Windy City proud, winning Outstanding Restaurant.
It was a heady 24 hours for Topolobampo co-owners Rick and Deann Bayless, who celebrated the restaurant’s 30th anniversary on Sunday evening at a party at the Chicago Art Institute. (That's the couple, above, arriving at the awards, in a Chicago Tribune photo).
“Deann has been the true heart of our restaurant since we opened our doors 30 years ago,” a tearful Rick Bayless said in his acceptance speech. The couple won the same award in 2007 for their Frontera Grill, located next door to Topolobampo.
New Orleans had a good night. Not only did Rebecca Wilcomb of Herbsaint win Best Chef: South, the city captured two national honors: Arnaud’s French 75 Bar won for Outstanding Bar Program and Zachary Engel of Shaya was named Rising Star Chef of the Year, awarded to promising chefs ages 30 or younger.
Philadelphia also enjoyed a three-award evening. After countless nominations, the influential Stephen Starr was named Outstanding Restaurateur. Michael Solomonov of the extraordinary Zahav won Outstanding Chef (coupled with Shaya, it proved to be an outstanding night for contemporary Israeli cuisine). And Greg Vernick of Vernick Food & Drink won Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic.
As is its practice, New York City did not walk away empty handed. Le Coucou (a Stephen Starr property) won Best New Restaurant, Ghaya Oliveira of Daniel won Outstanding Pastry Chef and Blue Hill at Stone Barns – about 30 miles north of Manhattan, and the work of New York City chef Dan Barber – won for Outstanding Service.
Minnesota did represent at the post-awards party, a crush that takes over every nook and cranny of the opera house’s lobby, concourses and events spaces.
More than two dozen of some of the nation’ top chefs prepared noshes, including Grant Achatz of Chicago’s Alinea, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo of Animal in Los Angeles, Joanne Chang of Flour Bakery + Cafe and Myers + Chang in Boston, Justin Yu of Oxheart in Houston and Paul Berglund of the Bachelor Farmer in Minneapolis (pictured, above).
Berglund, who was the 2016 Best Chef: Midwest winner, was cooking at the Beards for the first time.
“I’m just happy and excited to have been invited,” he said. The dish?
“It’s sweet and sour — maple and cider — glazed beets, with foie gras from Au Bon Canard [in Houston, Minn.], pain de mie croutons, some herbs and some pickled shallots,” he said. “I’m excited to bring Au Bon Canard to the U.S. chef community. I’m sure it’s not the first time, but I’m certainly proud of it.”
It was a hit – ingeniously quietly sweet and savory – and it’s not hometown boosterism when I declare it my favorite dish of the night.
Other memorable dishes included slow-smoked carrots with a mussel cream from Anna and David Posey and their Elske Restaurant in Chicago, smoked trout mousse on a seeded cracker from Renee Erickson of the Whale Wins in Seattle and devilishly bittersweet cocoa nib-caramel tarts by Dahlia Narvaez of Mozza in Los Angeles.
Here’s the vaguest of Minnesota connections: AvroKO of New York City won the 75 seat-and-under restaurant design award for its work at SingleThread in Healdsburg, Calif.; the firm also designed the recently opened Barnes & Noble Kitchen at the Galleria in Edina.
Another somewhat tenuous Gopher State tie-in: the 2017 Humanitarian of the Year was Denise Cerreta, founder of Salt Lake City-based One World Everybody Eats. The nonprofit is “dedicated to increasing food security and building community” through a collection of pay-what-you-can programs nationwide, including six-year-old Our Community Kitchen in Stillwater.
And Minnesota was definitely part of the foundation’s media awards, held on April 25 in New York City. Andrew Zimmern of the Travel Channel’s “Andrew Zimmern’s Bucket List,” “Andrew Zimmern’s Driven by Food” and “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern” was named Outstanding Personality/Host. Zimmern was a presenter on Monday evening.
As always, there were memorable speeches. “Hospitality is nourishing, it is spiritual, it is diplomacy,” is how Michael Solomonov ended his gracious Outstanding Chef acceptance speech.
Hugo Ortega of Hugo’s in Houston, the year’s Best Chef: Southwest honoree, was one of several winners who celebrated the country’s melting pot. “America is beautiful, and I’m living the dream,” he said.
Starr acknowledged his 5,000 employees, calling out the immigrants among that number, “for doing so much to keep my restaurants going,” he said.
Other speeches charmed. “This is almost as good as losing 20 pounds,” quipped Outstanding Baker winner Mark Furstenberg of Bread Furst in Washington, D.C.
Sharing Best Chef: Northwest winner honors with his spouse and business partner Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton, Greg Denton of Ox in Portland, Ore., blurted out what is probably on the minds of many who step up to the James Beard podium. “This is nightmare and a dream all rolled into one,” he said with a laugh to the crowd of 2,000 black-tie attendees.
Pleading for an end to the “gastro ceiling,” James Beard Foundation vice president Mitchell Davis and chef Rohini Dey of Chicago’s Vermilion shared a shocking figure: less than 7 percent of the nation’s leading chefs are women.
An annual highlight are the videos that show off the home turf of the five winners of the America’s Classics awards, which honor timeless, family-owned restaurants that reflect the character of their communities. (Kramarczuk’s of Minneapolis was a 2013 America’s Classics honoree).
As a time-saving device (it’s a looooong program), winners are no longer allowed the opportunity to give acceptance speeches – a mistake, since they have frequently supplied some of the most memorable Beard awards moments, year after year – but that didn’t stop some winners from speaking eloquently in their videos. (The 2017 America's Classics honorees, pictured above, receiving a standing ovation).
The leader of the pack was Miguel Jara, owner of La Taqueria in San Francisco. His description of the fresher-than-fresh fare at his restaurant drew a huge cheer. “The only thing here yesterday?” he asked. “The building, and the employees.” Later, he summed up the draw for those who make the hospitality industry their life’s work.
“This is heaven to me,” he said, looking around his restaurant. ”I hope heaven is as good as this.”
Chicago will host the Beards through 2021.