Even an evening plagued with wild storms and the threat of tornadoes couldn’t keep the culinary world’s elite from filling the Lyric Opera of Chicago once again for the 2022 James Beard Foundation Awards (JBFA). Following a two-year hiatus, the awards — often considered the Oscars of the food world — returned to the Windy City, complete with a weekend of events, panels, and, of course, an overall celebratory vibe now that people can once again safely gather.
The night began with an invite-only party at Bar Mar by José Andrés in the Bank of America Tower just north on Wacker Drive from the Lyric. Co-sponsored by Esquire magazine, the party featured hors d’oeuvres including mini halibut cones and seafood croquettes, an oyster bar, crisp rosé and ice-cold dirty martinis. Guests included Boka Restaurant Group co-owner Kevin Boehm, Oriole chef/owner Noah Sandoval, Kumiko’s Julia Momose (who also won a James Beard media award earlier in the weekend along with journalist Emma Janzen for their book, “The Way of the Cocktail: Japanese Traditions, Techniques, and Recipes”), Rick Bayless, Dominique Crenn, Gregory Gourdet, and Bobby Stuckey.
Then it was on to the main event, where nominees braved the pre-storm heat to walk the red carpet before mingling with the approximately 1,800 guests in the great hall to drink splits of Moët & Chandon and nibble from bags of the famed Garrett Mix popcorn. Ever-stylish and always-charming host Kwame Onwuachi, who won the emerging chef award at the 2019 JBFA and competed on Top Chef season 13, kicked off the event backstage being followed by a video camera broadcast to the crowd. He repeated, “We are back!” while running into other luminaries such as Clare Reichenbach, CEO of the James Beard Foundation, and chef and TV personality Andrew Zimmern.
Taking the stage amidst cell phones throughout the crowd buzzing with tornado warnings, Onwuachi introduced the night’s theme, gather for good. The theme held more poignance after the 2020 murder of George Floyd kicked off a social reckoning across the country. The JBFA itself was forced to confront its own shortcomings that summer and over the next year around diversity and equity. That loudly and beautifully was on display throughout the crowd, which highlighted BIPOC nominees, attendees, and more diverse faces than likely have been in the past.
Each category highlighted a cross-section of the industry and many of the winners exemplified that, such as emerging chef Edgar Rico of Austin’s Nixta Taqueria who got on stage and, clearly overwhelmed, said, “This is huge for La Raza! This is huge for my people.” Best pastry chef winner Warda Bouguettaya of Detroit’s Warda Pâtisserie, who originally hails from Algeria, said a phrase in Arabic and added in English she created her business to celebrate a borderless world and, “I wanted Warda Pâtisserie to reflect the America I left my motherland for.” Humanitarian of the year recipient Grace Young was praised for her work highlighting the struggles Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) have faced since the start of the pandemic, especially their mom-and-pop businesses in Chinatowns across America. Best chef Mid-Atlantic winner Cristina Martinez of Philadelphia’s South Philly Barbacoa accepted her award entirely in Spanish. And best chef New York State winner Chintan Pandya of New York’s Dhamaka wore traditional Indian garb to accept his award, which he dedicated to his father, prompting him to break down in tears before gathering himself and taking a selfie with the entire crowd.
A couple of touching moments happened when Onwuachi presented the best chef: South with his mother in the audience after saying she was the best chef he knows in the South. And when Houston’s Julep won for outstanding bar program, owner Alba Huerta and her “girl gang” — all in beautiful brightly colored dresses — seemed to float onto the stage and thanked Houston for welcoming immigrants like her family and helping them forge a path to open their own businesses.
While many chefs and restaurants from Chicago were nominated — such as Giant’s Jason Vincent (outstanding chef), Parachute (outstanding restaurant), Kasama (best new restaurant), Justice of the Pies’ Maya-Camille Broussard (outstanding baker), Nobody’s Darling (outstanding bar program), Lula Cafe’s Jason Hammel/Oriole’s Sandoval/Smyth’s John Shields and Karen Urie Shields (all for best chef: Great Lakes) — only one took home a coveted award. That deservedly went to Erick Williams, chef/owner of Hyde Park’s Virtue, adding to his growing list of recent accolades (he won chef of the year at the Jean Banchet Awards in May).
“I’m thankful for my ancestors who worked tirelessly for equity and inclusion way before it was a trending topic,” Williams said during his acceptance speech, following a standing ovation. “I got here by way of my community, my culture, my family, and the many trailblazers who were discarded and discounted who allowed me to cook food that feeds the heart, mind, spirit, and soul.”
After his win, we caught up with Williams in the media lounge where he added, “It’s not just about me. It’s never been. I’m honored to bring hardware home to Hyde Park.” He then was introduced to fellow winner Dane Baldwin of Milwaukee’s The Diplomat, who won best chef: Midwest. After the two embraced and offered each other congratulations, Baldwin told us, “I feel amazing. It’s not only an accomplishment for myself, but anyone who has ever taken a chance on me. It validates their efforts.”
Following the ceremony, the party continued a few blocks away at Union Station, where more than a dozen tasting stations from a diverse array of chefs, pastry chefs, and mixologists — including Chicago’s Gene Kato from Momotaro and Thattu’s Margaret Pak — fed the revelers into the wee hours, closing out another fantastic weekend where the culinary world came together in Chicago.
The 2022 Restaurant and Chef Award Winners are:
Outstanding Restaurateur: Chris Bianco, Tratto, Pane Bianco, and Pizzeria Bianco, Phoenix
Outstanding Chef: Mashama Bailey, The Grey, Savannah, Ga
Outstanding Restaurant: Chai Pani, Asheville, N.C.
Emerging Chef: Edgar Rico, Nixta Taqueria, Austin
Best New Restaurant: Owamni, Minneapolis
Outstanding Pastry Chef: Warda Bouguettaya, Warda Pâtisserie, Detroit
Outstanding Baker: Don Guerra, Barrio Bread, Tucson, AZ
Outstanding Hospitality: Cúrate, Asheville, NC
Outstanding Wine Program: The Four Horsemen, Brooklyn
Outstanding Bar Program: Julep, Houston
Best Chef: California • Brandon Jew, Mister Jiu’s, San Francisco
Best Chef: Great Lakes (IL, IN, MI, OH): Erick Williams, Virtue Restaurant & Bar, Chicago
Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic (DC, DE, MD, NJ, PA, VA): Cristina Martinez, South Philly Barbacoa, Philadelphia
Best Chef: Midwest (IA, KS, MN, MO, NE, ND, SD, WI): Dane Baldwin, The Diplomat, Milwaukee
Best Chef: Mountain (CO, ID, MT, UT, WY): Caroline Glover, Annette, Aurora, Colo.
Best Chef: New York State: Chintan Pandya, Dhamaka, New York
Best Chef: Northeast (CT, MA, ME, NH, RI, VT): Nisachon Morgan, Saap, Randolph, Vt.
Best Chef: Northwest and Pacific (AK, HI, OR, WA): Robynne Maii, Fête, Honolulu
Best Chef: Southeast (GA, KY, NC, SC, TN, WV): Ricky Moore, SALTBOX Seafood Joint, Durham, N.C.
Best Chef: South (AL, AR, FL, LA, MS, PR): Adam Evans, Automatic Seafood and Oysters, Birmingham, Ala.
Best Chef: Southwest (AZ, NM, NV, OK): Fernando Olea, Sazón, Santa Fe
Best Chef: Texas: Iliana de la Vega, El Naranjo, Austin
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Ari Bendersky is a Chicago-based lifestyle journalist specializing in food, wine, spirits, and travel. His work has appeared in the New York Times, WSJ magazine, Associated Press, Men’s Journal, AFAR, Wine Enthusiast, and more. Ari, who was co-host of the Overserved podcast, lives in Chicago with his husband and their scruffy pup.