Tonight, the chef's edition of James Beard Awards ceremony returns to Chicago for the second time in its three-year residency. Chefs flew in from all over the country to spill bottles of Veuve Clicquot like Old Style at a Cubs game. It's a lavish event when America's hospitality pros have an opportunity to shed their chef's coats in favor of tuxedos and gowns and celebrate another year of feeding the country. The most important part — aside from the party hopping and chef spotting — of course, is who walks away with a coveted silver medallion adorned with the face of culinary pioneer James Beard. So, how do you actually win this thing?
The selection process begins in October, when the foundation opens the call for nominations. "Anybody can nominate," says Phil Vittel, current committee chair and Chicago Tribune restaurant critic. "You can self-nominate, your mom can nominate — it's just throw a name out there." By the end of December, the submissions are closed and the committee, made up of 16 esteemed and somewhat anonymous food writers throughout the country, assembles the list of semifinalists with the help of additional regional judges. The names are sent to former award winners and current judges to be voted on. The results are compiled into the nominees, which are sent out for a second vote that decides the winners.
I honestly feel like I got the award after my sixth nomination because they felt sorry for me.
It is common for chefs to receive multiple nominations before taking home the win. Naha's Carrie Nahabedian was nominated three times before winning the Best Chef Great Lakes category in 2008. "The first year I was nominated, I knew that Shawn [McClain] was going to win, because he had propelled himself to a level of distinction," Nahabedian recalls. "The next year, Grant [Achatz] won and then it was my turn."
Jimmy Bannos Jr. was nominated twice before taking home the Rising Star Chef of the Year award. Topolobampo has notoriously been nominated repeatedly since 2011 for the Outstanding Service Award. Rick Bayless' restaurant is up for the award once again this year against other hospitality giants including Blue Hill at Stone Barns —winner of last year's Outstanding Restaurant Award— and Eleven Madison Park.
Chicago's most notorious "Susan Lucci of the James Beard Awards" is probably Hot Chocolate's Mindy Segal, James Beard Award winner for Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2012. "I honestly feel like I got the award after my sixth nomination because they felt sorry for me." Segal went on to tell Eater that her award came after years of making "simple desserts taste good." At the time of her win, she was in the process of renovating her Bucktown restaurant which has been serving savories and sweets for the past ten years.
Most disappointments, however, come earlier in the process, due to chefs not understanding the eligibility requirement. As Vettel tells Eater, "One thing we look for is evidence of sustained excellence. It's one of the reasons cooking in that region for three years is a requirement before you can be put on the semifinalists ballot." Chefs and restaurants are also not allowed to win the same award within a five-year span — a feat that has only been achieved by Wolfgang Puck, who won the Outstanding Chef award in its inaugural year 1991, as well as in 1998.
Is there a yellow brick road to winning? No. There is a yellow brick road to getting that nomination.
Despite the foundation recognizing a Lifetime Achievement Award, each award can be viewed as something earned over the span of a career, rather than a single year. This is especially evident in the introduction of new categories, most recently the Outstanding Bar Program and Outstanding Baker categories. These are often awarded to the pioneers in the field before the newcomers — see New York bar PDT and its founder Jim Lahey who took home the Outstanding Bar Program award in 2012 and in 2015. "We're playing catch-up to a certain extent with all the interesting bar programs out there," Vettel says. "Sometimes, as a nominee, you have to wait your turn."
A recurring sentiment among previous winners is that there is no shortcut or secret formula to guarantee a James Beard Award. "Is there a yellow brick road to winning? No," Nahabedian says. "There is a yellow brick road to getting that nomination, which is being recognized for being a really great cook, becoming a great chef, being a leader and making your mark in your region. Nationally, it's about the food that you're doing and your integrity." For her, the award embodies Beard himself: His commitment to bettering the culinary landscape though pioneering local produce while preserving classic American cooking.
Another recurring theme among Chicago's winners is humility. Bannos Jr. of The Purple Pig told Eater how he was surprised when he was nominated for Rising Star Chef of the Year in 2013. Growing up in the restaurant industry, awards such as the Beards were seen as validation for hard work and sacrifice. Following the nomination he pushed The Purple Pig's tiny kitchen even harder to produce the quality of food that would earn the Foundation's attention. That mentality did not change following his 2014 win. "For us, it's evolution," Bannos Jr. says. "If that equals James Beard consideration, that's great. If not, fine. We're motivated to get back there again, but at the end of the day you want a busy restaurant and you want to keep people happy."