Chicago’s Abraham Conlon emerges victorious at the 2018 James Beard Awards

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Chef Andrew Conlon and his Fat Rice business partner Adrienne Lo pose for the media after Conlon was named Best Chef Great Lakes Region at the James Beard Awards Monday night. | Ji Suk Yi Photo

It was a bittersweet Monday night for Chicago at the 2018 James Beard Awards.

First the sweet: Fat Rice owner/chef Abraham Conlon beat out four other Chicago chefs for the title best chef Great Lakes Region at this year’s gala awards ceremony held at the Lyric Opera House. The co-owner (with his partner Adrienne Lo) of the Portuguese/Macanese Logan Square eatery finally snagged the prestigious recognition, which has eluded him on two previous occasions.

Conlon topped Andrew Brochu of Roister, Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark of Parachute, David Posey and Anna Posey of Elske, and Lee Wolen of Boka. His win was the only one for the venerable Boka Group of restaurants, which had snagged four nominations overall this year.

In his acceptance speech, Conlon thanked everyone at Fat Rice, especially Lo. “Thank you to my amazing business partner Adrienne Lo, who stood by me for the past 10 years and inspires me to be better every day. Without her none of this would be possible. This award is just as much hers.” Backstage, Conlon was clearly overwhelmed by the honor. “I’m amazed, I’m humbled … I’m happy for my team, for Adrienne, for everyone who stands behind me every day that really puts in the hard work of waking up, going in there, cooking the food, serving the food, serving the wine. It takes a whole village behind me to actually make it happen. I think I’m just a spirit animal,” he said.

The only other Chicago victory of the night was that of Sun Wah BBQ,  announced in January as one of five recipients of the special America’s Classics Awards “given to restaurants that have timeless appeal and are cherished for quality food that reflects the character of their community.”

Now for the bitter: Chicagoans did not fare well in other competitive categories. Greg Wade of Publican Quality Bread and Meg Galus of Boka lost out in their categories for outstanding baker and outstanding pastry chef, respectively. Sarah Rinkavage of Marisol likewise was defeated in the category of rising star chef of the year. Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz of Boka Restaurant Group were beaten in the category of outstanding restaurateur; their Boka restaurant did not medal for outstanding service. And ABC7-Chicago’s Steve Dolinsky also came up empty in the category of best television segment.

It was the second year in a row that Chicago’s culinary community went largely unrecognized despite a fairly decent amount of nominations. Yet even those nominations did not include the hugely coveted categories of best new restaurant, outstanding chef and outstanding restaurant as had been the case in previous years.

Celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern, who also is the host/co-creator of Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern,” chalked up the minimal Chicago showing to a cyclical passage. “I think over the last couple of years, so much Chicago award-winning was done, and there’s so much great food all around this country. It’s just a cycle.”

The theme for the evening was “RISE,” in celebration of, according to the James Beard Foundation, the “collective spirit of our community and the power of food. Whether championing causes, committing to values, speaking up for those who can’t be heard, or cooking their hearts out, our food community rises to meet the challenges, to complete the tasks, and to make this world a better, more delicious place for everyone.”

In his welcoming remarks, Mayor Rahm Emanuel stressed the cultural diversity of Chicago, welcoming everyone from around the world to the city. He also touted the pride he felt in having Chicago host the black-tie awards gala for the fourth year. “Our culinary scene in Chicago is how we bring the world to Chicago and Chicago to the world,” he said.

He also noted the passing over the weekend of Chicago Chef Judson Todd Allen. “Here in Chicago, we lost someone very important, Judson Todd Allen, ‘the architect of flavor,’ who grew up in Chicago, went to Chicago public schools. While we celebrate, we also know life is fragile. He was proud of Chicago and Chicago is proud of him.”

Host Carla Hall in her opening monologue compared herself to Beyonce, quipping: “I love to sing, I love to dance, and I am the mother of twin — cookbooks.”

Here’s the list of winners in key categories announced Monday night at the “Oscars of the culinary world”:

Best New Restaurant: JuneBaby, Seattle

Outstanding Baker: Belinda Leong and Michel Suas, B. Patisserie, San Francisco

Outstanding Chef: Gabrielle Hamilton, Prune, New York

Outstanding Pastry Chef: Dolester Miles, Highlands Bar & Grill, Birmingham, Alabama

Outstanding Restaurant: Highlands Bar & Grill, Birmingham, Alabama

Outstanding Restaurateur: Caroline Styne, The Lucques Group, Los Angeles

Rising Star Chef: Camille Cogswell, Zahav, Philadelphia

Contributing: Ji Suk Yi

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