Chicago to host James Beard Awards through 2021

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Chef Rick Bayless | Sun-Times file photo

Chicago’s place as one of the culinary capitals of the nation and even the world was solidified Friday.

The James Beard Awards, widely known as the Oscars of the food industry, extended its stay in Chicago for another four years.

Chicago has played host to the James Beard Awards since 2015, when the annual ceremonies honoring the nation’s top chefs, restaurants and restaurant designs were held outside New York for the first time in 25 years.

Now, instead of ending its run in Chicago in 2017, the coveted awards that serve as a foodie magnet will remain here through 2021.

Sam Toia, president and CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association, said the impact of playing host to the James Beard Awards cannot be underestimated.

When top chefs, restaurant owners and critics from across the country converge on Chicago and sample the city’s restaurants and vibrant night life, it’s a major boost to what Toia called “culinary” tourism.

“If you’re keeping the Oscars of the culinary industry in Chicago, we must be the culinary capital of the United States. It gets everybody talking about Chicago. It emphasizes that we must have the best chefs. That translates into tourism,” he said.

Toia noted that the Food Network and the celebrity chefs it cultivates have fueled the phenomenon he calls “culinary tourism.”

“Nowadays, a majority of people who travel look at what restaurants are in that city. The back half of the plane is all about tourism,” Toia said.

“We have some of the greatest chefs in the country right here, like Rick Bayless, Stephanie Izard, Graham Elliot and Paul Kahan. Every year, all of these chefs strive to win the James Beard. When we get all the top chefs from across the country and all the press that comes in to eat in our restaurants, that makes the case for culinary tourism in Chicago.

He added, “What does any big city mayor want to do? It’s all about guests in beds and diners in seats. When Mayor Emanuel came in, it was 39 million visitors a year. Last year, we hit 53 million. He set a goal of 55 million by 2020. When you get powerful events like the James Beard Awards, that will get us there.”

In a news release announcing the extended partnership, James Beard Foundation President Susan Ungaro called Chicago a “great food city.” She also cited the “hospitality and passion” of Emanuel, the Illinois Restaurant Association and the tourism agency known as Choose Chicago.

Emanuel called the foundation’s decision a “testament” to Chicago’s “reputation as a culinary capital and cultural destination.” He noted that the city’s “world-class culinary scene” is a pivotal piece of the city’s diverse economy.

“We are proud to continue hosting this prestigious events and look forward to showing even more visitors what our city has to offer,” Emanuel was quoted as saying.

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