The James Beard Foundation Awards, considered the Oscars of the American restaurant scene, is moving its 25th anniversary ceremony to Chicago in 2015. It will be held at the Civic Opera House May 4 and would be the first time the ceremony is hosted outside New York since the awards’ inception in 1990. Mayor Rahm Emanuel made the announcement Tuesday morning at Pritzker Pavilion.
"People ... come from all over the country, all over the world to the city of Chicago to enjoy what you do with the canvas of a beautiful meal," Emanuel said to the group of chefs joining him on Pritzker's stage. "We've reached a milestone, through your years of work, in putting Chicago on the world stage as a culinary capital and a culinary destination."
The Beard Awards are a major get for the city, allowing Chicago restaurants to showcase for the country’s top chefs, restaurateurs and food journalists that attend the event. It’s the closest the food world has to a star-studded Hollywood gala: This year’s Beard Awards at New York’s Lincoln Center drew 1,700 people, and included presenters Martha Stewart, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson from hip-hop group The Roots.
(This reporter is a voting member of the James Beard Foundation.)
“The incredible passion and enthusiasm of Mayor Rahm Emanuel in wanting to host our foundation in Chicago was ultimately irresistible,” said Susan Ungaro, the president of the James Beard Foundation.
Ungaro said the foundation was first approached by Choose Chicago CEO Don Welsh, the city’s tourism and conventions salesman-in-chief. Conversations heated up three to four months ago among Choose Chicago, the mayor’s office and the Illinois Restaurant Association. Ungaro said the agreement was made official about two weeks ago.
“When the mayor put his goal of 55 million visitors, we looked at all the segments that come to Chicago — the convention-goers, the weekend trip from Indianapolis — and the one common denominator was food,” Welsh said. “The mayor saw (The Beard Awards') overarching benefits to the city, and was very clear to Sam Toia (president of the Illinois Restaurant Association) and myself to ‘go and get it.’”
While the ceremony will be held here next year, locations for 2016 and beyond are unknown.
A James Beard Award is a distinction that places local restaurants on the national map. Previous Chicago winners for outstanding chef, tantamount to being named national chef of the year, include Rick Bayless, Charlie Trotter, Grant Achatz and Paul Kahan.
“All restaurants (in Chicago) will benefit. They’ll get to mingle and mix with the culinary elite of America,” said Alinea chef Grant Achatz, who won the Beard’s outstanding chef award in 2008. “More broadly, there’s always been that second city mentality. The more acclaim our city can get — not just a single restaurant, but the validity we can get as a group of restaurants — that will really empower Chicago’s chefs and restaurateurs.”
A handful of Chicago names were winners at this year’s awards. Dave Beran of Next was named best chef in the Great Lakes region, and Jimmy Bannos Jr. of The Purple Pig was a co-winner for rising star chef, awarded to cooks under 30. Lawton Stanley Architects won outstanding restaurant design (75 seats and under) for their work on the West Loop restaurant Grace. In the journalism and book awards, Jacquy Pfeiffer of The French Pastry School (with co-author Martha Rose Shulman) won the baking and dessert book award for “The Art of French Pastry.”
James Beard was perhaps America’s first food celebrity, a cookbook author and educator who made haute cuisine accessible to the masses. In 1946 he hosted an NBC show called “I Love to Eat,” widely regarded as the first home cooking show on television. Beard would form a cooking school in 1955 and continued writing recipe books — credited with 27 during his lifetime — until his death in 1985 at age 81. The James Beard Foundation, a nonprofit, was founded in New York in 1986.
Ungaro would not elaborate whether the city offered any financial incentives that ultimately lured the awards from New York, only that the city of Chicago made “a compelling offer in terms of sponsorships and marketing.”
Welsh said the event will be funded entirely through corporate sponsorship, and that “not one dollar of public money will be used for this event.” HMS Host and Mariano's have signed on as the first two sponsors.
Despite the awards gala relocating to Chicago (Ungaro said no decision has been made about host cities beyond 2015), the foundation’s journalism, broadcast and book awards will remain in New York next year. Ungaro said it was easier for attendees of that ceremony to travel — 60 percent of those who attend the journalism, broadcast and book awards reside in New York, New Jersey or Connecticut. For the chefs gala, two-thirds of attendees come from outside the New York tri-state area.
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