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Chicago celebrates the James Beard Awards in grand style

Publican Quality Bread’s Head Baker, Greg Wade celebrates his win at the 2019 James Beard Awards, on Monday, May 6, 2019. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

The best of the country’s culinary world descended upon our beautiful city Monday night for the James Beard Awards. A fitting match-up, as Chicago’s a city that loves to eat and rivals the restaurant capitals of the world.

The red carpet was rolled out, resplendent with a backdrop of the grand Lyric Opera House. Attendees and celebrities made their way down the press aisle in elegant dresses and tuxedos. Horns from the adjacent traffic jam on Wacker Drive peppered the air on a rather cool May evening in the Windy City. No doubt it was adrenaline that kept most attendees warm as they strolled by.

Actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson hosted the black-tie ceremony for a second time in three years. Celebrities Aisha Curry and Zooey Deschanel brought the glam. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, an avid food-lover, proudly said, “Five years ago when we went to get this to bring it out of New York to Chicago… but what’s more important than that is every nominee in the Great Lakes category comes from Chicago.” Nearly two-dozen chefs, including previous James Beard Award winners, provided the fare for the grand post-ceremony feasting, served at stations throughout the massive lobby and mezzanine of the Opera House.

The James Beard Award sets Chicago abuzz each year, with pre-parties over the weekend and plenty of after-parties. Monday night also was no exception when it came to local celebrating, with Chicago taking top honors in four categories at the awards ceremony.

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It’s a family affair as Beverly Kim, Johnny Clark triumph at James Beard Awards

After four previous nominations, Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz of Boka Restaurant Group won for Outstanding Restaurateur. Emerging from the elevator to the press room, Boehm and Katz looked genuinely in shock, beaming with happiness.

“I don’t even know what my name is right now. I feel incredible. That whole thing… I’d love to run it back. It’s exhilarating and scary. I was so incredibly proud to be standing next to [Rob] because we’ve been doing this together for such a long time so we rarely get to sit back and say ‘Hey, look what we did! I love working with you so much,'” said Boehm.

“It’s surreal, you see people sort of shake when they get emotional. It’s real,” said Katz of the “slow-motion” feeling of hearing their names called.

Boehm and Katz recalled their first meeting, over coffee in Lincoln Park, and deciding to “go for it” by opening “just one place.” Joking that they would retire after Monday night’s win, Boehm said he planned to sleep-in late on Tuesday and order a burrito or mozzarella sticks at some point in the day.

In the Best Chef Great Lakes Region category, husband-and-wife team Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark brought home the medalions.

“It was kind of like an out-of-body experience. I didn’t believe it at first. I heard it but… I was, like, wait, did I actually hear that?,” said Clark.

“I’m so used to hearing someone else’s name,” said Kim. “I can’t explain how it feels. I’m just really grateful because I know how amazing everybody else is. This could be anyone’s year.”

Kim and Clark planned to celebrate with their restaurant team and family with champagne and pizza. No champagne for a visibly pregnant Kim, who is awaiting the couple’s third child later this month.

Outstanding Baker of the year went to Greg Wade from Publican Quality Bread, who double-checked the winner envelope to make sure it wasn’t a mistake.

“It’s pretty outrageous… surreal,” Wade said. “It’s pretty wild. [Baking is] a lot of heavy lifting and being covered in flour and dough and stuff. It’s a labor of love.”

When I asked Wade his plans after his big win he said he planned to “kiss his fiancée and his bakers.” He’ll be busy the next few months planning his wedding, with one exception: He doesn’t plan to bake the wedding cake.