All eyes will be on Chicago Monday night as the “Oscars of the culinary world” — officially the James Beard Awards — are presented to the nation’s best chefs, restaurants and food/wine journalists and more in a black-tie gala ceremony at the Lyric Opera House.
This year’s ceremony theme is “RISE,” and according to the James Beard Foundation’s website, that theme “is meant to celebrate 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.”
It’s in that spirit that we take a closer look at the Chicago nominees up for the coveted Beard medallion, as well as one restaurant receiving a special honor tonight.
It’s an all-Chicago throwdown in the category of Best Chef Great Lakes for the third year in a row. Alas, only one chef will walk away with the award tonight, but in our eyes all five nominees are already winners and among the best chefs in Chicago’s world-renown culinary landscape:
Andrew Brochu, Roister: It’s Brochu’s first Beard nomination. In a 2017 interview with “Check, Please!,” Brochue said his culinary inspiration came from many sources, including his time spent at Alinea, under the tutelage of Chef Grant Achatz (Roister is part of the Alinea Group of restaurants). “I think the cooking at Roister is influenced and inspired by everything I have learned in my life about food — starting with my southern upbringing, … my developing curiosity when I was a chef before I was probably ready to be a chef, teaching others, and just always being inspired by restaurants.” Brochu was named chef of the year in 2017 at the prestigious Jean Banchet Awards.
Abraham Conlon, Fat Rice: It’s not Conlon’s first Beard nomination (he got a semifinalist nod in 2014, 2015 and 2016). In 2013, Bon Appetit named Fat Rice No. 4 on the list of “Best 10 New Restaurants.” Conlon’s Portuguese/Macanese cuisine continues to thrill and surprise. Th 2018 Michelin Guide describes the Fat Rice experience: “Sharing is recommended for the namesake arroz gordo, a paella-esque blend of meat, shellfish, and pickles. Pillowy bread pairs well with crisp chili prawns stuffed with a flavorful blend of fermented black beans and garlic; while chrysanthemum gelée served with jackfruit and peanuts is a sweet ‘n salty thrill.”
Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark, Parachute: No strangers to the James Beard Awards, Parachute, with its critically acclaimed modern spin on Korean cuisine, has been a past nominee for best new restaurant while the dynamic duo has twice been previously nominated for best chef Great Lakes. In a 2016 interview with opentable.com, Beverly Kim described the genesis for the restaurant’s signature (and not-to-be-missed) Bing Bread: “Johnny had the idea to do some kind of bread that was different, and that would have an Asian influence, and he suggested I try making a bing bread. I tried out some basic scallion bing bread recipes which came out good but not too original. I thought about how the midwesterner loves scallions on top of potatoes, like a loaded baked potato. I tried adding the flavors of a loaded baked potato (white cheddar, bacon bits) to the bing bread with sour cream butter, and it turned out to be a hit.”
David Posey and Anna Posey, Elske: In 2017 review, The New York Times said: [The] dishes at Elske are colorful and cleanly composed, featuring vaguely earthy ingredients (smoked fruits, crispy grains, homemade vinegars), many of which come from nearby farms and the restaurant’s patio-side herb garden.” Elske translates from the Danish word for “love,” and there’s plenty of that peppered throughout the tony eatery’s exquisite menu. With a team at the helm that is no stranger to culinary awards (Anna Posey received the 2018 Jean Banchet award for pastry chef of the year, David has received his share of Beard nods), Parachute was named among the best new restaurants in the country in 2015 by Bon Appetit.
Lee Wolen, Boka: Wolen has been serving up his critically acclaimed seasonal American fare at this Michelin-starred eatery for several years. In 2015 the eatery was honored as Restaurant of the Year and Wolen tapped with Chef of the Year accolades from the Jean Banchet Awards. Wolen received best chef in America nominations from the James Beard Foundation in 2016 and 2017, and has been nominated several times for best chef Great Lakes.
In the category of Rising Star Chef of the Year, chef de cuisine Sarah Rinkavage of Marisol is nominated for the first time for the award which recognizes “a chef age 30 or younger who displays an impressive talent and who is likely to make a significant impact on the industry in years to come.”
Greg Wade is up for Outstanding Baker for his culinary wizardry at Publican Quality Bread. The award recognizes “a chef or baker who prepares breads, pastries, or desserts in a retail bakery, and who serves as a national standard-bearer of excellence.”
Meg Galus of Boka is nominated for the third time in the category of Outstanding Pastry Chef for her sumptuous offerings at Boka. The award recognizes “a chef or baker who prepares desserts, pastries, or breads in a restaurant, and who serves as a national standard-bearer of excellence.”
In the category of Oustanding Restaurateur, it’s a return trip for nominees Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz of the Boka Restaurant Group (which also counts Girl & the Goat and GT Fish & Oyster , Balena, Momotaro and GT Prime among its roster of more than a dozen Chicago eateries). The team was a finalist in this category in 2016 and 2017. The award recognizes “a working restaurateur who sets high national standards in restaurant operations and entrepreneurship.”
Boka restaurant is also a finalist in the category for Outstanding Service, an award which recognizes “a restaurant in operation five or more years that demonstrates high standards of hospitality and service.”
In the broadcast media awards division, ABC7-Chicago’s Steve Dolinsky was nominated once again for Best Television Segment for his “Hungry Hound” features on the Chicago television station and its website. He has more than a dozen wins in this category for his radio/television work.
Already announced is the Chicago recipient of one of this year’s America’s Classics Awards: Sun Wah BBQ. Owners/siblings Kelly Cheng, Laura Cheng and Michael Cheng will be accepting the award Monday night on behalf of the family-owned eatery specializing in Hong Kong-style Chinese barbecue. The restaurant’s signature dish: whole duck, carved tableside. Previous Chicago-area recipients of this award include The Berghoff (1999), Tufano’s Vernon Park Tap (2008) and Calumet Fisheries (2010).