The Jean Banchet Awards for Culinary Excellence — the local Emmys equivalent to the James Beard Foundation Awards — is the annual ceremony celebrating the achievements in Chicago’s restaurant community. This year’s nominees were announced Tuesday morning at the Fairmont Chicago hotel, and the names will be of no surprise if you dine around downtown Chicago with any frequency: Charles Joly, Lee Wolen, Curtis Duffy, Carrie Nahabedian et al.
These nominees were chosen via an online public vote in late October, and, as is the case with online public votes, can turn into a ballot-stuffing campaign. It’s a given that restaurants with larger social media outreach fare better. Then again, every one of these restaurant awards — be it the Beards or Eater.com — is in essence a popularity contest, just with varying degrees of voting transparency. With the Beards (full disclosure: I’m a voting member), a national committee of 17 food critics and writers debate over the nominees, then open up final voting to restaurant professionals and media. The Banchets are peer nominated, with winners chosen by a group of chefs and beverage professionals in January.
Even if the Banchet nominees are determined by who can get the most fans in front of a computer, the finalists this year are a fair and deserving representation of the places most buzzed-about around town. Yes, the suburbs are underrepresented, and there’s a back-patting insularity among a certain class of restaurants. But those involved with the event say it’s a work-in-progress and improving each year. And the fact that the awards gala (Jan. 31 at The Fairmont) is a $100 to $500-a-head ticket benefiting the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, its charitable intent outweighs whatever fixable flaws in the nominating process.
Two things are for certain: With little exception, most of the names below are doing excellent work and worthy of your patronage. And even if just for once a year, it’s fine to let Chicago restaurant industry folks kick back and enjoy each other’s company on a Friday night.
Here are the nominees:
Restaurant of the Year
Acadia, Brindille, Embeya, Grace
Chef of the Year
Curtis Duffy (Grace), Carrie Nahabedian (NAHA), Paul Virant (Vie, Perennial Virant), Andrew Zimmerman (Sepia)
Pastry Chef of the Year
Lisa Bonjour (mk), Craig Harzewski (NAHA), Elissa Narow (Vie, Perennial Virant), Leigh Omilinsky (Cafe des Architectes)
Best Chef de Cuisine
Ali Ratcliffe-Bauer (Brindille), Andres Padilla (Topolobampo), Sean Pharr (NoMI Kitchen), Nicholas Romero (Grace)
Rising Chef of the Year
Thai Dang (Embeya), Nicole Pederson (Found), Tom Van Lente (TWO), Lee Wolen (nominated for The Lobby at the Peninsula Chicago; Wolen is taking over Boka in January)
Rising Pastry Chef of the Year
Dana Cree (Blackbird), Sarah Mispagel (Nightwood), Thomas Raquel (Acadia), Bobby Schaffer (Grace)
Best New Restaurant
Fat Rice, Found, Gather, Travelle, TWO
Valerie Cao (Grace), Chad Ellegood (NoMI Kitchen), Richard Hanauer (The Langham, Chicago), Arthur Hon (Sepia)
Charles Joly (The Aviary), Paul McGee (Three Dots and a Dash), Danielle Pizzutillo (Embeya), Sergio Serna (The Drawing Room)
Best Restaurant Design
Balena, Boarding House, Brindille, Embeya
Best Restaurant Service
Balena, Grace, Nightwood, Sixteen