The James Beard Foundation Awards gala returned Monday evening to the Lyric Opera of Chicago for the first time since 2019. Often described as the Oscars of the culinary world, the Beards are an excuse for chefs to swap out their whites and clogs for formalwear and walk the red carpet like movie stars. After two taxing years in the hospitality industry, even a tornado warning, which went off just as the evening was getting underway, couldn’t stop the awards from going forward.
But despite all the fanfare and attention lavished on the host city, just one Chicagoan won an award at the event, which is designed to celebrate outstanding chefs, restaurants, and hospitality professionals: Erick Williams, chef and owner of the Southern restaurant Virtue in Hyde Park, took home the medal in the Chicago-heavy category of Best Chef: Great Lakes.
Williams was a nominee for the same award in 2020, and Virtue was ranked among Eater’s Best New Restaurants in 2019. In his acceptance speech, he didn’t bother to pretend he hadn’t prepared his remarks in advance. Instead, he used the moment to pay tribute to the Black community.
“I’m very thankful to my ancestors who worked tirelessly to create opportunities of equity and inclusion way before that was a trending topic,” he said. “I didn’t get here of myself or by myself. I got here by way of my community, by way of my culture, by way of my family, and by way of the many trailblazers that were discarded and were discounted. That allowed me to have a path and recipes and ingenuity and the confidence to produce food day in and day out that feeds the mind, heart, spirit, and soul.”
Williams is joined in an otherwise lonely local winners circle by Leadership Award winner Erika Allen, co-founder and CEO of operations at the South Side-based farming nonprofit Urban Growers Collective. She’s also a Beard legacy: Her father, Will Allen, won a Leadership Award from the foundation in 2011. (Leadership Award winners were announced back in March.)
A full list of awards is available on Eater.
As in the past, Chicago itself played a role in the awards ceremony. Mayor Lori Lightfoot spoke about how this year’s theme Gather for Good was particularly apt for the city because of the way the food community has mustered itself over the past two years to keep going through the pandemic. “You popped up,” she said, “you went outdoors, and, dare I say, you delivered.”
Award presenter Jeremy Allen White, who stars in the Chicago-set Hulu show The Bear, also seized the opportunity to wax poetic about the Windy City, where he staged in restaurants to make his portrayal of a fine dining chef more accurate. “There’s something really magnetic and mysterious about this place,” he said. “It’s the ultimate watch-and-learn city.”
On a lighter note, Jeremiah Paprocki, the public address announcer at Wrigley Field, read the names of the nominees for Best Chef: Great Lakes, which were displayed on one of the ballpark’s scoreboards. (One had to feel sorry for Omar Anani of Saffron De Twah in Detroit, the only non-Chicagoan on the roster.)
The road to this year’s gala has been a fraught one for the foundation. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced organizers to first postpone and then cancel the awards ceremonies for 2020 and 2021. In the meantime, the foundation itself and some of its award nominees faced allegations of bullying, sexism, and racism. Just before a virtual award ceremony in the summer of 2020, the Beard Foundation announced that there would be no awards after all and none in 2021, either. A week later the New York Times reported that this decision was due in part to a complete absence of Black winners in any of the 23 categories.
Throughout this year’s ceremony, foundation officials emphasized a new commitment to, as Dawn Padmore, the vice president of awards put it, “transparent, accessible, and equitable awards.” The judges appeared to have made an effort to make sure that was not an empty promise. Of the 22 winners, 16 are Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC). One, Cristina Martinez of South Philly Barbacoa, winner of Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic, delivered her acceptance speech in Spanish.
The final and arguably the most important award of the night, Outstanding Chef, went to a Black chef. “Thank you for betting on Black,” Mashama Bailey of the Grey in Savannah, Georgia, said in her acceptance speech. “Thank you for betting on Black and brown folks, immigrants, mom-and-pop shops that have been bubbling underneath the surface... Today a little Black boy or little Black girl can see themselves as an outstanding chef. They can see themselves in a place they’ve never seen themselves before. And until just a few minutes ago, that was me.”
If Chicagoans are eager to experience the cooking of this year’s Beard winners other than Williams, on Tuesday evening they can visit Rick Bayless’s Bar Sótano in River North where Emerging Chef winner Edgar Rico of Nixto Taqueria in Austin, Texas, will co-host a special collaborative dinner.
Disclosure: Some Vox Media staff members are part of the voting body for the James Beard Foundation Awards.