Beard Finalists Carry the Torch from Coast to Third Coast

Abe Conlon

Abe Conlon wraps a sticky rice dumpling (which were dangled from a tree!) at last year’s Taste Talks food festival in Palmer Square. He is nominated for a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Great Lakes for his work at Fat Rice.


This May, Chicago lays claim to the James Beard Awards for the second year in a row. Our chefs and hospitality groups more than held their own with more than a dozen nominations, from pastry to design.

Boka Group’s Meg Galus was named a semifinalist for Outstanding Pastry Chef, alongside her chef at Boka, Lee Wolen, who was nominated for Best Chef in the Great Lakes region. Chicago chefs swept that category, in fact, represented also by Abraham Conlon (Fat Rice), Curtis Duffy (Grace), Erling Wu-Bower (Nico Osteria), and Andrew Zimmerman (Sepia). Jenner Tomaska of Next was also honored with a Rising Star Chef nomination.

The James Beard Foundation separates the chef category by loosely defined regions; our next door neighbor, Milwaukee, belongs to the Midwest region, as the Great Lakes includes just four states — Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan. The committee, comprised of food journalists from across the country, judges New York City as a standalone entity, but San Francisco and Los Angeles may have a slight edge in the West, which consists only of California, Nevada, and Hawaii.

Chefs and restaurants from Decatur, GA to Arlington, VA and Camden, ME, a coastal town north of Portland, to San Juan, Puerto Rico diversify the list from expected standouts in America’s major hubs and those already up-and-coming midsize cities. Birmingham’s Highlands Bar & Grill is recognized for its pastry chef, Dolester Miles, and as Outstanding Restaurant — right next to famed spots in NYC (Momofuku Noodle Bar, The Spotted Pig), Boulder’s Frasca Food & Wine, and Chicago’s own Alinea, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary (thus qualifying it for the Outstanding Restaurant category) by ripping apart the entire restaurant and starting over from scratch.

In the restaurateur spectrum, the Boka Group’s grand achievements in 2015 haven’t gone unnoticed – owners Rob Katz and Kevin Boehm got a nomination in that category, while Topolobampo and North Pond are both up for Outstanding Service, perhaps the most underrated award. Despite some stellar bars opening in Chicago last year (Imbibe named Lost Lake their Cocktail Bar of the Year), only Sepia was recognized for its wine program. Land + Sea Dept., the masterminds behind Longman & Eagle, Dusek’s, Lost Lake, and most recently Cherry Circle Room,  garnered a nod for their design work inside the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel at the Cherry Circle Room, while their business partners scored another nod in the same category (over 75 seats) for the upstairs space at Cindy’s.

The James Beard Awards have grown to be perhaps the most coveted by chefs, restaurateurs, and industry journalists alike. The latter recognizes excellence in everything from broadcast to podcast, critiques to home cooking. Our friend Kevin Pang (the only Chicagoan who received a nomination in the Book, Broadcast and Journalism Awards) got a documentary nom for his film, For Grace. Speaking of the BBJ Awards, I noticed this year, for the first time ever, a UK-based programme (The Food Chain) was nominated in the Radio Show/Audio Webcast category, despite the fact it only airs on BBC World Service. Does this mean the Beards are opening themselves up to international entries? I’ve already asked; will let you know what I hear.

For the full list of semifinalists, visit the James Beard Foundation website. The BBJ Awards are held in NYC on a Tuesday night – April 26.  Tickets to the awards show at the Lyric Opera in Chicago on May 2 go on sale this Thursday, March 17.



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