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Virtue, Kasama Together Score Big for Chicago at James Beard Awards

One victorious chef even threatened to soil himself onstage

Two smiling chefs posing.
Genie Kwon (left) and Tim Flores took it home for Kasama on Monday.
Barry Brecheisen/Eater Chicago

After a near-miss last year, spouses and chefs Tim Flores and Genie Kwon of Kasama — the world’s first Michelin-starred Filipino restaurant and a 2022 James Beards Foundation finalist for best new restaurant — clinched the best chef: Great Lakes award.

The honor came for Chicago despite a dominant presence by Detroit, which scored three out of five nominations; Diana Davila’s Mi Tocaya Antojera nabbed the fifth.

The James Beard Foundation Awards, widely viewed as one of the highest hospitality industry honors in the U.S., returned Monday evening to the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The annual gathering is a prime opportunity for chefs, restaurateurs, bartenders, and publicans from across the country to don their glad rags (this year, many opted for bold, juicy summer hues) and take their turns on the red carpet.

Dressed once again in matching suits, Flores and Kwon pointed to the impact their award may have on broader perceptions of Filipino cuisine. “To be recognized for cooking my mom’s food is insane,” said Flores on stage. He also admitted to being “on the verge of shitting [his] pants.”

Kasama functions as a cafe during the day as a showcase for Kwon’s pastries and a few savory items from Flores, such as a Flipino-American version of an Italian beef combo using longgnisa and shaved adobo pork. At night, it morphs into one of the toughest tables in town with a tasting menu that presents lumpia and lacquered squab under a fine dining backdrop that Americans rarely see.

A celebratory, and blessedly less urgent, evening for Chicago continued as Damarr Brown of Southern restaurant Virtue in Hyde Park took home the 2023 medal for emerging chef, following his mentor and boss Erick Williams into the Beard winners circle. In just a handful of years, Virtue has earned numerous accolades including a spot on Eater’s Best New Restaurant list in 2019. Last year, Williams became the first Black chef to win best chef: Great Lakes — a historic victory that Brown addressed directly in his brief acceptance speech, in addition to thanking his mother, aunt, and grandmother who raised him. “For the last 13 years, you’ve been an example to me — I stand because you stood.”

A chef poses with a medal and smiles.
Damarr Brown of Virtue snagged this year’s emerging chef award.
Barry Brechiesen/Eater Chicago

For Brown, Williams’s leadership both inside and outside the kitchen made his win tonight possible. “He cleared the path and left enough room for me to figure out my own space on that path,” Brown says. “I’m doing what I’m doing because he made the space available to me.”

Chicago’s new mayor Brandon Johnson, sworn in less than a month ago, followed his predecessors Lori Lightfoot and Rahm Emanuel to the Beards stage, alongside Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker. “Food is the soul of Chicago,” Johnson bellowed, noting that he can personally vouch for Virtue’s fried salmon sticks. Both effusively thanked the foundation for holding the gala in Chicago, where it will remain until at least 2027.

Not all, however, was happy tears and regional pride. In what is apparently now a ritual at the Beards, drama once again hung over the proceedings and occasionally reared its head during the awards ceremony. The latest round of upset has emerged from the Foundation’s attempts to investigate chef and restaurant nominees accused of being bad actors, a process instituted in 2022 following a major internal audit. This investigative procedure has, of course, proven to be fraught and imperfect, and is mostly obscured from public scrutiny save for when nominees themselves make their disqualification known. What is clear is that one chef was disqualified from winning the category he was nominated in, and at least two judges quit over how that situation unfolded.

Awards Committee Trustee Tanya Holland and CEO Clare Reichenbach didn’t wade into the messy tangle during their time on stage but waved obliquely in its direction. “We are about raising people up, not calling them out,” Reichenbach intoned, as Holland acknowledged that the institution is still in the midst of a transition. “We’re learning as we go,” Holland told the audience. “It’s not always smooth, but that doesn’t mean we’re not on the right path.”

After a rocky ride at last year’s gala, Kwon and Flores have found themselves well-positioned to reflect on the ups and downs of hospitality. After last year’s loss, winning “feels even better,” says Kwon.

“I can’t say I’m more talented than anyone else,” Flores adds. “What I can say is that our team worked so hard to come in every day and cook the food — not only that but to understand we’re here to take care of people, to remember why we’re in this.”

A full list of awards is available on Eater.

Disclosure: Some Vox Media staff members are part of the voting body for the James Beard Awards. Eater is partnering with the James Beard Foundation to live stream the awards in 2023.


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