The story of how Chicago wrestled the James Beard Foundation Awards away from New York has made its rounds. The tale starts out in November 2013 when local celebrity, sommelier and restaurateur Alpana Singh made a casual suggestion to foundation board members to consider Chicago if they thought about moving the awards away from New York.
A year and a half later, the Beards will take place on Monday inside the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The foundation's made a multi-year commitment to the city, as the awards will return for the next two years. Sure, some New Yorkers aren't happy about the extra travel, but it's a coup for city officials in their quest to find new revenue streams for a cash-strapped city. Even though organizations such as Choose Chicago (the city's tourism arm) and the Illinois Restaurant Association aren't sharing what the estimated economic impact might be, restaurant owners are taking advantage of the increased culinary tourism.
"Some of our goals were to expose our places to visitors, to show off what Chicago does really well," said RJ Melman, an executive partner at Lettuce Entertain Your Enterprises.
Melman and his colleagues began planning about five months ago, arranging several events at LEYE's various restaurants to showcase Chicago. The Beards provide chances to forge partnerships with out-of-towners, something that Melman's father did very well. Rich Melman will receive the Beard's lifetime achievement award on Monday.
Culinary tourism certainly is a buzz phrase in Chicago, and Don Welsh, president and CEO of Choose Chicago, says that's due to a change in the demographics of visitors. It began in the summer of 2012 when the city saw an increase in couples on romantic getaways looking to spend their dollars at restaurants, as well as female group travelers with a refined itinerary revolving around eating at certain restaurants. Tapping into the Beards was a natural use of the data, buoyed by the goals of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's focus on tourism.
Welsh worked closely with the Illinois Restaurant Association, including the group's president Sam Toia. Toia, harkening back to some of the rhetoric mentioned during the winter's Chicago mayoral race, said he felt neighborhood restaurants away from Chicago's downtown — such as Beard-nominated Parachute in Avondale — would benefit from the increased exposure. He also sees an opportunity for younger chefs, such as Rising Star Chef of the Year nominees Tanya Baker from Boarding House.
Both Welsh and Toia lauded the collaborative culture of Chicago's chefs, referring to one of the initial planning meetings held last year at Blackbird as a veritable "who's who." Welsh said every chef "checked their egos at the door," further reinforcing how Chicago's culinary scene takes pride in each other's successes rather than relying on constant competition.
But the Beards' impact isn't just felt by the fine-dining establishments, at least to the every-man of Chicago's culinary scene, Doug Sohn. Sohn, who elevated the simple Chicago-style hot dog to gourmet levels at since shuttered Hot Doug's, will attend the Beards, even cooking his signature foie gras hot dog for a pre-awards event on Sunday.
"The Beards can't be everything to everyone, just like restaurants can't be everything to everyone," Sohn said. "But that's fine, and to be asked personally to cook for it is an honor."