The James Beard Awards are back in Chicago, and after a weekend of honoring food media and industry leaders, the Restaurant & Chef Awards take place Monday night.
The Chicago Tribune food team will be on site, providing live coverage as notable chefs and restaurateurs from around the country gather at Lyric’s Civic Opera Building for the award ceremony. Follow them on Twitter, and check back here for live updates throughout the night. Scroll down for a live video of the awards.
Chef Natalia Vallejo is the first Puerto Rican chef to win a James Beard Award. The chef, from Cocina al Fondo in San Juan, was awarded Best Chef in the Southern Region, which includes Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Puerto Rico.
Vallejo was also the first Puerto Rican chef to be nominated for a Beard Award.
Illinois Governor JB Pritzker made a surprise visit to the party. He thanked the newly opened Mayor of Chicago, along with the James Beard Foundation, the Chicago and Illinois Restaurant Association.
He hailed Chicago as one of the “most vibrant, diverse and delicious food cities in the world”.
Mayor Brandon Johnson also made a surprise visit.
“How about this amazing moment,” he said. He praised the city’s five-star restaurants as well as its humble hot dogs and Italian beef sandwiches.
“Now we have vegan beef sandwiches,” he said.
Chicago chef Demar Brown took home the first win of the night for Emerging Chef. Brown has been the kitchen chef at Virtue in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood for years.
In his acceptance speech, Brown said, “To my team that stands by me every day, I hope each and every one of you will stand with me now, because together we’ve made it all.” “As for the women who raised me, they were my first examples of kindness, generosity, and patience—all of which were virtues.”
Brown also nodded to the changes at the institution, and to his longtime mentor, Virtue Eric Williams.
“I’ve always felt that it’s very difficult to do something if you don’t see someone who looks like you doing it,” Brown said. “So I want to thank Chef Eric Williams. For the past 13 years, you have been this example to me. I stand because you stood.”
Behind the scenes after the awards, Brown said it was the “intention to spread kindness” that helped Virtue stand out two years in a row in The Beards.
Regarding what he’s learned in his 13 years with Williams, he said, “I think integrity is a big thing.” “It was just a great example of not only how to lead, but to follow; how to be humble, how not to be responsible all the time.”
Brown said he intends to continue to cook in Chicago kitchens for many years to come.
“Sure here in Chicago,” he said. “Chicago is home.”
Top Chef judge and author Gail Simmons kicked off the show with jokes about hosting a reality TV show for so many years that she created little “monsters” who love critiquing decadent butter and talking about flavor profiles. Then I thanked the people who grow, pick and transport our food.
Tanya Holland, Chef and Chair of the James Beard Awards Committee, spoke about the Foundation’s efforts to make a difference.
“It’s hard and rare for people to get to the level where they can get a James Beard Award nod,” Holland said. “We never have enough resources or support, and that’s especially true if you’re a person of color, and even more so if you’re a woman.”
But she said the foundation is committed to making the industry more inclusive.
“We’re learning as we go,” Holland concluded. “It’s not always smooth sailing, but that doesn’t mean we’re not on the right track.”
As chefs, restaurateurs and other top chefs arrive at the Opera Civic Building, Chicagoans grace the event’s red carpet alongside their contemporaries.
Lamar Moore, who joined Bronzeville Winery in April as its new executive chef, said he’s excited to support Damar Brown. Brown is the chef at Virtue in the Hyde Park neighborhood, and one of the nominees for Tonight’s Emerging Chef Award.
“It’s a huge problem that it’s been nominated twice like that,” Moore said of Virtu, which also picked up a win last year when Chef Eric Williams won Best Chef: Great Lakes. “I’m proud to be here for Chicago.”
That sentiment was echoed, they said, by fellow Chicagoans D’Andre Carter and Heather Bublick of Soul & Smoke, who attend the awards each year.
“Of course we’d like to see Damar, Jenny Kwon, Timothy Flores or Diana Davila win,” Carter said. Basically anyone from Chicago. We’re here to support Chicago chefs.”
As for Davila, she said Monday, “I’m excited at the chance to win and come home to my team and Chicago.” “I met so many wonderful people tonight and the world seems so much smaller.”
Growing beards during a busy weekend in the city proved Chicago is ready for an action-packed summer, said Sam Toya, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association.
“We are having a great weekend with Taylor Swift and James Beard Awards. The downtown hotels are packed,” Toya said. “This proves once again that we are the culinary capital of the United States.”
The awards are scheduled to be held in Chicago through 2027.
Chicago went into Monday’s Restaurant and Chef Awards with one win already. Beverage journalist Emma Janzen and Toby Maloney, chief mixologist for The Violet Hour, won a media award for “The Bartender’s Manifesto: How to Think, Drink & Create Cocktails Like a Pro,” in the Drink Books with Recipes category.
It’s Janzen’s second beard award in as many years, winning in 2022 for The Way of the Cocktail, which she co-wrote with Julia Momosé, bar and creative director at Kumiko.
The James Beard Foundation will broadcast the awards live, which are set to begin at 5:30 p.m., and you can watch them on YouTube, or below:
In January, Cambodian fine dining Smyth and Khmai and Wazwan were among 11 Chicagoland restaurants named semi-finalists for the James Beard Foundation Restaurant and Chef Awards.
Of these, five became candidates at the end of March:
Diana Davila of Mi Tocaya Antojeria, Tim Flores of Kasama, and Genie Kwon are nominated for Best Chef: Great Lakes category. Other nominees for the award include Omar Anani (Saffron De Twah) of Detroit, Andy Holiday (Selden Standard) and Sarah Welch (Marrow).
Damar Brown, Head Chef at Virtue, is a nominee in the Emerging Chef category. This continues a remarkable run for Virtue, as chef and owner, Erick Williams, took home Best Chef: Great Lakes last year.
In the Best New Restaurant category, Chicago’s Obelix will take on nine other restaurants, including Nolia in Cincinnati and Lupi & Iris in Milwaukee.
Sepia Restaurant, which opened in 2007 in the West Loop, is among the five nominees for Excellence in Hospitality.
Last year saw the event return after the James Beard Foundation canceled its awards for the first two years of the pandemic amid a reckoning with the lack of diversity among potential 2020 winners.
The Foundation has undergone a review of its judging practices, and has pledged to become fairer with the return of its awards in 2022.
Last week, The New York Times reported on the foundation’s investigative process set up in 2021 as part of those changes, along with an ethics committee and advice line. The newspaper reported that at least one chef was excluded this year as a result of investigations.
More Tribune coverage of the Beard Award finalists:
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