James Beard Awards Coming to Chicago

My Kind of Town…

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel isn’t one to hide his emotions. So when he takes the stage at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park this morning, don’t be surprised if you see him kvelling like a mother who’s just learned her son, the lawyer, is going to Harvard. That’s because there, flanked by Chicago’s past James Beard Award winners (present company excluded), our foodie mayor is expected to announce the “Academy Awards of the food world” are moving to Chicago next year.


According to several sources, all of whom requested anonymity due to the highly secretive nature of the negotiations, The New York City-based James Beard Foundation will fête the U.S. culinary world’s elite not at Lincoln Center – where it has done so for the past several years – but rather, at Chicago’s Civic Opera House.


A number of Chicago chefs have already been contacted, with a request to attend the announcement this morning, but few, if any, know what it’s for. I asked Bottlefork’s Kevin Hickey on Saturday night about the vague invitation, and he either had no idea what it was about, or he’s an outstanding actor who might want to audition for Rick Bayless’ “Cascabel” play at the Goodman this summer. One of Chicago’s most recent Beard winners – Jimmy Bannos, Jr., of the Purple Pig (Rising Star Chef) – was equally confused about the invite, explaining that his father, Jimmy Sr. had reminded him about it, but due to the craziness of this past weekend’s National Restaurant Show, when he and his colleagues were in the weeds, he simply forgot about it. Emails to The Beard Foundation for comment were not returned.


It’s no secret Emanuel has been trying to lure the Beards here, hoping to also raise the city’s culinary cred. At a March Beard Award nomination breakfast at The Publican, he quipped “New York usually hosts the stars of the culinary industry, but here in Chicago, we produce them.”


Having personally witnessed da mayor enjoying seafood at GT Fish & Oyster and picking up four pizzas from the late, lamented Great Lake, I know the guy is a serious fresser. Say what you will about his style, but where his predecessor was steak and potatoes, Rahm is all about the ceviche and platanos.


Some questions that are going to need to be addressed, however:


–       Do they still hold the Book, Broadcast and Journalism Awards on Friday night, with the main gala for chefs and restaurants on a Monday?


Since all of the national food press, including magazine editors and writers, as well as TV producers, live in New York, it would mean not only a flight, but four nights hotel plus expenses (good luck running that by your boss). Also, where do you hold this event, which is a sit-down dinner, along with a stage for presentations and A/V? The Montgomery is quickly becoming the city’s go-to for elegant events (it used to be Brasserie Ruhlmann Restaurant) and it’s close enough to downtown hotels.


–       Where do they host Chef’s Night Out?


This Sunday night tradition has traditionally been held at restaurants, but over the past few years, as the crowds (and interest) have grown, they’ve hosted it in the massive, cavernous food hall below The Plaza Hotel, and even that seemed a tad crowded this year. The French Market is way too tight, but Eataly might make a lot more sense, as would Union Station.


–       Assuming there is similar interest in coverage, beyond the handful of Chicago writers who focus exclusively on food, where do you house the media on the night of the gala?


In the good ol’ days, when the Awards were held at the Marriot Marquis in Times Square, there was plenty of space for not only the awards ceremony, but also the Press Room and the After Party (more on that in a second). But ever since they moved it to Lincoln Center, the press room has been getting squeezed for space, while more and more guests, hangers-on, sponsors’ friends and amateur bloggers took up valuable space. Up until this year, any on-camera interviews with winners had to take place outside of the building, due to union issues. There were no reserved seats for members of the press, and while there was a small TV monitor hung in the corner, there was no sound. This year, due to a scheduling snafu, the smaller theater across the courtyard was used at Lincoln Center, and the Press Room was the size of a Lower East Side studio. Sure, there was a bar and a sponsor manning a table slicing off aged Iberico ham (food journalists get awfully hungry), but interviews had to be conducted inside of this tiny room, in some cases, near the bathroom, while that TV monitor still didn’t have the sound working. If Chicago wants to do things right, take a cue from sports arenas and have assigned seating, then learn from the Academy Awards and have a dedicated space for video interviews and call someone at Abt to get a video and sound system that actually works.


–       What about the After Party?


If you wanted to attend the awards – which routinely clock in around three hours – you’re going to have to pay up. This year’s ticket price was well north of $400. What do you get for that? Well, for one thing, access to the nation’s biggest talent in the food world. Every PR person in New York City attends, and I’d be surprised if they didn’t make the trip in. But you also get to experience a black tie gala, which includes some of the best chefs from around the country, all offering up small tastings, which you can sample while balancing a wine glass in your other hand. It’s not unlike any charity event you’ve ever been to where chefs are involved. Think of it as elegant grazing. But the problem at Lincoln Center has always been space. There were several times at this year’s event where I literally felt like I was queuing up for a beer at P.J. Clarke’s on a Saturday night; navigating the aisles proved almost as difficult, squeezing between ball gowns and tuxes like I was at a frat party. If the Opera House is going to host the event, they better figure out what the capacity is, then re-adjust and calculate for all of the chefs’ service tables, back bars and support staff.


In terms of everything else that happens during Beard Weekend – the sponsor’s parties, the pre-game cocktail receptions and the vaunted after parties (some official and others not so much) – I have no doubt Chicago is up to the task. In fact, this is where the city will truly shine. Getting visitors into our unique, out-of-the way bars and restaurants will be a sheer joy for all of us. No disrespect to the heavies downtown and on the Near North Side, but they all know as well as I do, how many great places there are to eat and drink here. Having a chance to show them off to the rest of the country is going to be a blast (and one that’s long overdue).

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