Late Monday night and into Tuesday morning, more than 500 gathered on Chicago’s friendly South Side to celebrate two huge James Beard Foundation Award wins for the city.
Virtue’s Erick Williams cruised the sidewalk on Harper Court with a cigar in hand, posing for photos like a proud father. Last year, he wore his Beard medallion walking through a crowd on 53rd Street in front of his restaurant during a late-night party. He noticed in some photos from that night that his bow tie and collar were tangled with the medal. As his protege, Damarr Brown, on Monday night won the Beard for emerging chef, Williams used his 2022 experience by lovingly adjusting his mentee’s collar. It looked like a wedding day scene, with the groom being doted on by his groomsmen and family.
Brown says he received dozen of text messages during the gala after his win. But he only responded to one, from Williams: “He told me he was proud of me and that he loved me,” Brown says.
While New York was shut out for the first time ever, Virtue’s chef de cuisine wasn’t even Chicago’s only winner, as Kasama’s Tim Flores and Genie Kwon took home best chef, Great Lakes — the same honor Williams earned in 2022. Seizing that momentum, Williams invited the national restaurant community to see Hyde Park on the South Side with their own eyes. Not everyone attending the Beards or the Union Station afterparty made it down to Hyde Park. But Flores and Kwon wanted to share their moment with Williams. After all, “kasama” is a Tagalog word that alludes to teamwork or togetherness.
This year, Williams had arranged for blockages restricting motor vehicles, turning Harper Court into a block party. Crews removed the tables at Daisy’s Po-Boy and Tavern, also owned by Williams, and turned that into a one-day-only club with dancing, lots of food, and plenty of laughs. The Chicago native knows his city isn’t perfect — security was on hand Monday night — but maintains that Chicago’s problems with crime are the same big city concerns other cities face. Pundits, many of whom have spent scant time in Chicago, often paint the city negatively, labeling the city — particularly the South Side — as unsafe to live.
“Chicago is painted as the most dangerous city in the nation, but the reality is it isn’t in the top 10,” Williams says.
Outsiders struggle to describe Chicago with benign deep-dish jokes and, at worst, sham Fox News segments. It’s not a resentment of outsiders (or food critics not born here), it’s a relentless history of bad takes that’s pushed locals to this state of mind. That’s why residents rally around T-shirts like “If you’re not from Chicago please shut the fuck up about Chicago.”
After the 2022 Beard Awards, held in Downtown Chicago at the Lyric Opera, a perfect — and literal — storm of events opened a path for Williams to uniquely showcase the South Side. A series of storms hit Chicago and knocked out electricity in several parts of the city. The storms in 2022 were so violent that staff inside the Lyric briefly evacuated the media room on the first floor, worried that high winds could break the glass window.
Last year, Williams had already planned to host a Beards afterparty, serving fried chicken and Champagne to an invited guest list of about 100. A 2022 nominee for best chef, Great Lakes, he wasn’t being cocky by planning a premature victory party — he wanted an opportunity to bring out-of-town guests away from downtown and the parties that have taken place annually at North Side restaurants, particularly those in the West Loop.
Last year’s intimate guest list never had a chance after Beard judges bestowed Williams with a medallion, making him the first Black chef to represent Chicago and take home the honor. Ubers, Lyfts, and cabs descended from downtown to Hyde Park to celebrate. The problem was there was no power and no air conditioning. A remarkable scene ensued, with crowds of people wearing evening gowns and tuxedos cramming onto the sidewalk on 53rd Street. It was an impromptu block party on Chicago’s supposedly “dangerous” South Side.
Because 53rd Street isn’t residential, there weren’t complaints about noise last year. Police were on hand, but had no reason to act. Without power, there was no music.
With that experience under his belt, Williams wanted more. Even though last year’s party was special, Williams says there were ways to improve. And so he walked over to Harper Court, a development owned by the University of Chicago, the area’s largest employer and property owner. Williams connected with Harper Court’s restaurant owners: Ja Grill, Bob’s Pizza, and Jade Court. He reached out to Atlanta pitmaster Bryan Furman and secured sponsorships from Southern Glazer’s, and more.
“The grid in Harper Court is probably stronger here than Virtue’s,” says Jade Court owner Carol Cheung.
Cheung and Jade Court donated pot stickers, shrimp rolls, and Mai Tais for this year’s event, hoping for more exposure. It’s not easy operating behind a towering Hyatt Hotel. Cheung is quick to point out that Hyde Park isn’t representative of the rest of the South Side, but the neighborhood still suffers from the same stigma: “Hyde Park is super safe, parts are safer than places on the North Side,” she says.
Saying “no” to Williams was not an option for Bob’s Pizza. Bob’s Executive Chef and Partner Matt Wilde says Williams has been a good ambassador for Hyde Park, and the South Side; Bob’s also has a Pilsen location.
The future continues to shine for Brown. But he says he’s going to take his time plotting his next move. He just wanted to enjoy the night:
“I’m going to do something at some point,” he says. “I’m in no rush, but right now I’m with family, this is where I feel good.”
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 livestream the awards in 2023. All editorial content, including this post, is produced independently of the James Beard Foundation.