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A group of women in gowns dance inside Union Station in Chicago.
The Beards are back, baby.
Barry Brechiesen/Eater Chicago

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After a Three-Year Hiatus, the James Beard Gala Was a High-Energy Party

Although Chicago chefs and restaurateurs took home just one medal, there was still plenty to celebrate

On Monday afternoon, hospitality leaders from across the U.S. — fully decked-out in sky-high heels, tuxedos, and in one case, an enormous flower-shaped hat — descended on the Lyric Opera of Chicago to mark the first James Beard Foundation culinary awards gala since 2019.

Chicago had nine finalists going into the event, but in the end, only one went home with a medal: Erick Williams, the veteran chef behind Virtue, a Southern restaurant in Hyde Park that pays tribute to his own family’s recipes, was dubbed Best Chef: Great Lakes. Williams was nominated for this award once before. In 2020. Virtue was chosen as one of Eater’s Best New Restaurants in 2019.

Two men pose together, smiling, with their award medals.
Chefs Erick Williams of Virtue (Best Chef: Great Lakes) and Sean Sherman of Owamni in Minneapolis (Best New Restaurant) show off their medals.

Despite the three-year hiatus, the affair’s dazzle hadn’t diminished: From wide-eyed passersby gawking at a bustling red carpet to joyful screaming embraces between long-separated friends, the energy of the crowd was palpable before proceedings even began.

The mood outside was so buoyant that one could even, just for a moment, forget the trials the industry still suffers in the ongoing pandemic. Upon stepping inside the opera house, however, the specter of the virus couldn’t be avoided. Attendees were required to furnish proof of COVID-19 vaccination at the door, and though most guests weren’t masked, the crowd was dotted with covered faces.

A man and woman in matching red suits pose on a red carpet.
A man and woman pose together, smiling, on a red carpet.
A woman in a poofy pink dress poses, smiling, on a red carpet.

Chicago nominees Tim Flores and Genie Kwon of Kasama (top); Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark of Parachute (left); Maya-Camille Broussard of Justice of the Pies (right).

Even a gathering storm, which at one point grew so severe that a chorus of cell phones blared a tornado warning, couldn’t dampen attendees’s spirits. As reporters were temporarily shuffled from a windowed press room into the basement as a safety measure, host Kwame Onwuachi (Rising Star Chef, 2019) managed to maintain a lively atmosphere amid many costume changes, at one point sharing the mic with his mother to announce nominees. As in years past, the foundation also bolstered the energy with non-chef presenters like actors Christian Clemenson — currently portraying James Beard himself on the HBO show Julia — and Jeremy Allen White of the Showtime drama Shameless and Hulu’s The Bear.

A man in a tuxedo plays a claw arcade game.
The claw!
A woman in a black apron and red bandana puts the finishing touches on a small plate of food.
Margaret Pak of Thattu was one of the many guest chefs who provided food at the after-party.

Though the host city could have used a little more love in the awards department, the industry finally got to see the results of the foundation’s promise to address a 2020 controversy that raised questions about the integrity of the awards. Leadership conducted an audit, made a number of changes, and diversified the judging committees. Their efforts appear to have paid off, with 16 Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC) winners in 22 categories.

Peek at the red carpet and explore the post-ceremony reception inside Union Station in the photographs below. A full list of award winners is available on Eater.

Two men in suits pick up pieces of nigiri from a chef behind a counter.
Gene Kato and his team from Momotaro couldn’t put out nigiri fast enough.
A woman in a floral dress smiles and poses on a red carpet.
A man in a tuxedo and glasses smiles on the red carpet.
A woman in a green dress smiles as she pours wine from a bottle into a glass.
A man in a tuxedo and white hat poses on the red carpet.

Erika Allen (Leadership Award, top left); Jason Hammel of Lula Cafe (top right); actor Christian Clemenson isn’t James Beard, but he plays him on HBO’s Julia (bottom right).

Two women and a man pose together, smiling, and wearing their award medals.
Robynne Maii (Best Chef: Northwest & Pacific), Grace Young (Humanitarian of the Year), and Martin Yan (Lifetime Achievement Award).
A woman works the DJ booth at the James Beard Awards party.
A DJ provided beats, but most guests were more interested in eating and seeing one another again than in dancing.
A woman in a white dress wearing an award medal digs into a tasting bowl.
Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic winner Cristina Martinez refuels at the after-party.

Virtue

1462 E. 53rd Street, Chicago, IL

Parachute

3500 North Elston Avenue, , IL 60618 (872) 204-7138 Visit Website

Thattu

3118 North Rockwell, Chicago, IL 60618 (708) 669-6716 Visit Website

Lyric Opera

20 N Wacker Drive, Chicago, IL 60606 312 332 2244 Visit Website

Lula Cafe

2537 North Kedzie Boulevard, , IL 60647 (773) 489-9554 Visit Website

Kasama

1001 North Winchester Avenue, , IL 60622 (773) 697-3790 Visit Website
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