The third finalist nomination was the charm for Abe Conlon. The Fat Rice chef/owner finally broke through and won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Great Lakes in 2018. Conlon’s win was the only for Chicago chefs and restaurants on Monday night at the Lyric Opera House of Chicago, who were finalists in six categories, including all five nominees for Best Chef: Great Lakes.
Boka Restaurant Group, which was nominated in four categories, went home without any medals. The esteemed Chicago restaurant company, which includes chef Stephanie Izard’s Girl & the Goat and Duck Duck Goat in West Loop, was nominated for Outstanding Restaurateur and Outstanding Service. Meg Galus (Boka) was nominated for Outstanding Pastry Chef, while Lee Wolen (Boka) was nominated for Best Chef: Great Lakes.
Conlon was without his signature facial hair. He proudly brandished his medal and said he was “keeping it fresh” for his mother, Bonita Kiney, who was in town. He praised business partner of Adrienne Lo.
Chicago chefs holding all five Great Lakes nominees meant chefs from Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio were locked out and that a Windy City chef was guaranteed a win. New York has its own category, which allows chefs from other smaller cities a better chance to win an award. Others have called for Chicago to be given the same treatment.
Fat Rice has been open since 2012 in Logan Square, introducing Chicago to Macau, the tiny autonomous region on China’s southeast coast. The cuisine is a mixture of Chinese, Portuguese, and Indian flavors. Conlon was also nominated in 2017 and 2016 for Best Chef: Great Lakes as finalist. He was a semi-finalist in 2014 and 2015.
“There’s an army of people behind me,” Conlon said.
Conlon wasn’t the only one from Chicago who was honored on Monday. Earlier this year, Uptown Beijing duck specialist Sun Wah BBQ was announced as an American Classic, and it was officially bestowed with the award tonight. This special Beard award recognizes old favorites which “reflect the character of their community.” Sun Wah’s been around since 1986 and is hailed as one of the best Chinese restaurants in the city. Eric and Lynda Cheng founded the restaurant, and now their children run the place. A video played with footage from the restaurant in which the owners talked about the “400 years of cooking knowledge” that’s behind their dishes.
Head here for Eater National’s roundup of all the winners, and come back on Tuesday morning for more scenes from the awards.