It’s been a minute — or two years, to be more specific, although at this point it feels like time is merely a construct — since the last Jean Banchet Awards for Culinary Excellence, aka Chicago’s culinary Oscars. Presented once again in partnership with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the 19th Annual Banchet Awards were held at the South Loop’s Venue SIX10 on Sunday, May 1.
The Chicago restaurant community was out in force and dressed to kill. After two years of pandemic closures, pivots, and general hysteria, the relief of a return to well-earned celebration was palpable — “We Made It” was definitely the unofficial theme of the evening. Award presenters Curtis Duffy (Ever), Breakfast Queen Ina Pinkney, and Steve Dolinsky (“The Food Guy” on NBC5) rubbed shoulders with nominees Kevin Hickey (The Duck Inn), Thai Dang (HaiSous Vietnamese Kitchen), and Erick Williams (Virtue).
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The evening kicked off with a champagne reception on the venue’s 10th floor, accompanied by delicious bites from Travelle at the Langham, Carnivale, Ocean Prime, Uvae Kitchen & Wine Bar, and The Kennison. Then it was on to the main event: the award ceremony, hosted for the sixth time by the sinfully charming and hilarious Michael Muser, the beloved Director of Operations for Ever. His opening monologue was a barn burner, an overview of what the restaurant community has endured over the last few years, how it has adapted, and how it survived. Muser welcomed the audience to revel in their persistence, and to the new Chicago restaurant landscape.
The spunky, delightful presence of Muser’s usual on-stage assistant, 13-year-old CF community member and aspiring chef Evie Murphy, was definitely missed, but he let us know that she was doing well, and now on life-changing meds. “You did that for her,” said Muser, referring to the money raised by chefs and restaurant staffs at various CF fundraisers.
The awards, often a three-hour marathon in past years, clocked in at a sharp 90 minutes, partially due to fewer awards categories, but also to less schtick between awards. Highlights included Rising Star Chef of the Year Ethan Lim, chef/owner of Cambodian sandwich shop by day, eight-course private family meal by night Hermosa, who brought his mother (“The most amazing date EVER!”) up on stage to claim his award while the audience swooned; Best Heritage Restaurant, won by Sochi Saigonese Kitchen, was presented by dedicated CF physicians Kimberly Watts and Manu Jain, who quipped, “We appreciate great food because the hospital cafeterias have set the bar so very low;” and Chef of the Year Erick Williams began his acceptance speech (graciousness personified) with a powerful Frederick Douglas quote: “Where there is no struggle, there is no progress.”
Interspersed between the awards, Muser did a few bits (“Are You Yelping at Me?” brought up chefs to try to identify their own restaurants in online comments), and introduced an excellent CF video, “Driven by a Dream,” which followed four young CF patients and the life-changing effects of new medical protocols. The “In Memoriam” segment was a moving testimony to those we have lost, including Chicago restaurant industry giants Hecky Powell, Bernard Cretier, Carla Kelson, Joe Fiely, and Bob Chinn.
After the ceremony, guests headed up to the ninth and tenth floors to blow off some steam. Comfort foods (bulgogi and tofu soft tacos from Seoul Taco, White Castle sliders, Krispy Kreme donuts, Domino’s pepperoni pizza, and foie gras burgers from Venteux, among others) were the name of the game, accompanied by a full bar. A DJ spun some tunes, and award winners and nominees alike were fêted. There’s no party like a restaurant party, and all for a great cause.
The evening’s award winners:
Rising Chef of the Year: Ethan Lim of Hermosa
Best Bar: The Alderman
Best Hospitality: William Talbott of El Ideas
Best Alternative Dining: Sinhà
Best Bartender: Stevan Miller of Claudia
Best Neighborhood Restaurant: The Duck Inn, Chef Kevin Hickey
Best Sommelier: Alex Ring of Sepia/Proxi
Best Heritage Restaurant: Sochi Saigonese Kitchen
Best New Restaurant: Dear Margaret, Chef Ryan Broussard
Best Pastry Program: Kasama, chef/owners Genie Kwon and Tim Flores
Chef of the Year: Erick Williams of Virtue Restaurant
Restaurant of the Year: Oriole, Chef Noah Sandoval and GM Cara Sandoval
How to Help:
The Banchet Awards are presented in partnership with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and help raise awareness and financial support for the foundation. Consider making a donation to this worthy nonprofit.
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Julie Chernoff, Better’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz Scaggs, Rick Bayless, and Wolfgang Puck (not all at the same time); and counts Northlight Theatre and Les Dames d’Escoffier International as two of her favorite nonprofits. She currently serves on the national board of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, an advocacy group addressing hunger issues in the U.S. and Israel for the nearly 46 million people — veterans, children, seniors, tribal nations, and more — who go to bed hungry every night.