The James Beard Awards are back in Chicago, and after a weekend of honoring food media and industry leaders, the Restaurant and Chef awards are taking place Monday night.
The Chicago Tribune food team will be on the scene, providing live coverage as prominent chefs and restaurateurs from across 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.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker made a surprise visit to the ceremony. He thanked Chicago’s newly inaugurated mayor, along with the James Beard Foundation, Choose Chicago and Illinois Restaurant Association. He praised Chicago as one of the most “vibrant, diverse and mouthwateringly 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 dining restaurants and also the humble hot dogs and Italian beef sandwiches. ”We also have vegan beef sandwiches now,” he said.
Chicago chef Damarr Brown took away the first win of the night for Emerging Chef. Brown has been the chef de cuisine at Virtue in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood for years.
“To my team who stands beside me daily, I wish each of you were standing with me now, because we achieved all of this together,” Brown said in his acceptance speech. “To the women who raised me, they were my first examples of kindness, generosity, and patience — which all happen to be virtues.”
Brown also nodded to the changes at the foundation, and to his longtime mentor, Virtue’s Erick Williams.
“I’ve always felt that it’s extremely difficult to do something if you don’t see anyone who looks like you doing it,” Brown said. “So I’d like to thank chef Erick Williams. For the last 13 years, you have been that example for me. I stand because you stood.”
Backstage after the awards, Brown said it’s the “intention of spreading kindness” that has helped Virtue stand out two years in a row at the Beards.
As for what he has learned in his 13 years working with Williams, “I think integrity is a big thing,” he said. “He’s just been a great example of not only how to lead, but to follow; how to be humble, how to not be in charge all of the time.”
Brown said he intends to keep cooking in Chicago kitchens for many years to come.
“Definitely here in Chicago,” he said. “Chicago is home.”
Gail Simmons, “Top Chef” judge and author, started the show with jokes about hosting the reality TV show for so many years that she’s created little “monsters,” who love to critique ramp butter and talk of flavor profiles. She then thanked the people who grow, pick and transport our food.
Tanya Holland, chef and chair of the James Beard Awards Committee, also spoke on the efforts from the foundation to spark change.
“It’s difficult and rare for people to get to the level where they have the visibility to receive the nod for a James Beard Award,” 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 the foundation is committed to making the industry more inclusive, she said.
“We’re learning as we go,” Holland concluded. “It’s not always smooth, but that doesn’t mean we’re not on the right path.”
As chefs, restaurant owners, and other culinary heavyweights arrive at the Civic Opera Building, Chicagoans are gracing the event’s red carpet alongside their contemporaries.
Lamar Moore, who joined Bronzeville Winery in April as its new executive chef, said he was excited to support Damarr Brown. Brown is chef de cuisine at Virtue in the Hyde Park neighborhood, and one of the nominees for the Emerging Chef award tonight.
“It’s a great problem to have, to get nominated twice like this,” Moore said of Virtue, which also took away a win last year when chef Erick Williams won Best Chef: Great Lakes. ”I’m just proud to be here for Chicago.”
It was a sentiment echoed by fellow Chicagoans D’Andre Carter and Heather Bublick of Soul & Smoke, who attend the awards every year, they said.
“Of course we’d love to see Damarr, Genie Kwon and Timothy Flores, or Diana Dávila, win,” Carter said. “Basically anyone from Chicago. We are here to support the chefs of Chicago.”
As for Dávila, “I’m excited for the opportunity of winning and to take it home for my team and Chicago,” she said Monday. “I’ve met so many incredible people tonight and the world seems so much smaller.”
And the Beards taking place during a busy weekend in the city proved Chicago is ready for an action-packed summer, said Sam Toia, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association.
“We are having such a great weekend with Taylor Swift and the James Beard Awards. Downtown hotels are packed,” Toia said. “And this once again proves that we are the culinary capital of the United States.”
The awards are set to take place in Chicago through 2027.
Chicago goes into Monday’s Restaurant and Chef awards with one win already locked down. Drinks journalist Emma Janzen and Toby Maloney, head mixologist at The Violet Hour, won a Media Award for “The Bartender’s Manifesto: How to Think, Drink & Create Cocktails Like a Pro,” in the category of beverage books with recipes.
It’s Janzen’s second Beard Award in as many years, as the author won in 2022 for “The Way of the Cocktail,” which she co-wrote with Julia Momosé, bar and creative director of Kumiko.
The James Beard Foundation will livestream the awards, set to begin at 5:30 p.m. You can watch on YouTube, or below:
In January, Smyth, Khmai Cambodian Fine Dining and Wazwan were among 11 Chicagoland restaurants named as semifinalists for the James Beard Foundation Restaurant and Chef Awards.
Of those, five became nominees at the end of March:
Diana Dávila of Mi Tocaya Antojeria and Kasama’s Tim Flores and Genie Kwon are up for the Best Chef: Great Lakes regional category. Also up for the award are Detroit’s Omar Anani (Saffron De Twah), Andy Hollyday (Selden Standard) and Sarah Welch (Marrow).
Damarr Brown, chef de cuisine at Virtue, is a nominee in the Emerging Chef category. This continues a great run for Virtue, as Erick Williams, the chef and owner, picked up Best Chef: Great Lakes award last year.
In the Best New Restaurant category, Chicago’s Obelix restaurant will go up against nine other restaurants, including Nolia in Cincinnati and Lupi & Iris in Milwaukee.
Sepia restaurant, which opened in 2007 in the West Loop, is among five nominees for Outstanding Hospitality.
Last year marked the return of the event after the James Beard Foundation canceled its awards for the first two years of the pandemic amid a reckoning with a lack of diversity among its would-be winners in 2020.
The foundation underwent an audit of its judging practices, pledging to become more equitable with the return of its awards in 2022.
Last week, the New York Times published a report into the foundation’s investigatory process created in 2021 as part of those changes, along with an ethics committee and tip line. At least one chef was disqualified this year as a result of the investigations, the Times reported.
More Tribune coverage of Beard award finalists:
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