Sunday night marked a new beginning for the Jean Banchet Awards, the local honors that recognize Chicago restaurants and chefs (it’s also named for the esteemed French chef). The Banchets skipped 2023 as the committee of local chefs and tastemakers who vote on the awards reassembled itself with a new charitable beneficiary. Those efforts produced a brisk two-hour ceremony at Venue SIX10 where Galit, the upscale contemporary Middle Eastern eatery, won Restaurant of the Year.
“I want to thank this lovely chef and bald gentleman, Zach [Engel], for giving me a call several years ago,” Galit co-owner Andres Clavero said Sunday night while onstage. “The stories of food have been so emotionally important and personal to the two of us. In a year where everyone was asked to do what’s changing what is different and nothing has changed — we will continue to share stories of those that are unheard and food that is meaningful and showcase people who don’t necessarily have a voice.”
Clavero and chef Engel keep adding to their trophy case. The Lincoln Park restaurant has already achieved a Michelin star status for the last three years. Engel is a James Beard Award winner for 2017’s Rising Chef of the Year while he worked at Shaya in New Orleans. Later this year, the duo plans to open a second restaurant, a few doors away from Galit on Lincoln Avenue.
Meanwhile, Paul Virant, a venerable chef behind hits like Gaijin in Fulton Market and Vistro Prime in suburban Hinsdale, won Chef of the Year. Virant’s influence, through cookbooks and as a role model to many chefs who attended the ceremony, is also evident at two of his shuttered restaurants, Perrenial Virant in Old Town, and Vie in suburban Western Springs.
Awards host Michael Muser, the master sommelier and co-owner at Ever, kept the event running smoothly. While he peppered the show with jokes, he had only one meaty comedic bit which came in the opening monologue, a David Letterman-style Top 10 list, “Top 10 Ways to Tell if Your Restaurant Employee is High on the Job.”
“No. 5: You serve a consummé that tasted like bong water because it actually is bong water,” Muser said.
Muser dedicated that line to retired Chicago Tribune dining critic Phil Vettel, the recipient of the night’s Culinary Excellence of the Year Award. Breakfast Queen Ina Pinkney, looking spry before her 81st birthday on Valentine’s Day, presented the awarded Vettel with a charming story about when Vettel, then an anonymous critic, revealed his identity to her while interviewing her before her 2013 retirement. Vettel would retire in 2021 after 31 years at the Trib.
“Do you know what a forager bee does?” Vettel told the audience. “The forager bee looks for flowers, looks for nectar — finds areas with really good quality nectar and then it goes back to the hive and does this little nectar dance which tells all the other bees ‘follow me I know where the good shit is.’”
“And that’s my career.”
For 2024, the Banchets partnered with Chicago Chefs Cook, a nonprofit that formed in 2020 and has raised more than $1 million for numerous charitable causes both internationally and locally. For the previous 20 years, the awards were associated with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, but after the 2022 show, the sides separated.
For Sunday’s event, Chicago Chefs Cook picked James Beard and Jean Banchet award winner Erick Williams’ group, the Virtue Leadership Development Program, as the beneficiary. Williams has stressed the importance of mentors — one example is Damarr Brown his chef de cuisine at Virtue and the 2023 Emerging Chef of the Year by the Beard Foundation. Williams spoke about the need to invest in underserved communities, and how those resources impact growth. Equity (versus equality) is about more than just what spaces look like in terms of representation.
“By having the opportunities — or tools, equipment, the books, the support, the mentorship, and the development — I have the grand opportunity to speak with heads of states, heads of cities, and everyone down to someone’s 90-year-old grandmother who wanted to just celebrate being 90 years old,” Williams said.
Another highlight from Sunday came after Rubi’s on 18th, the winner of Heritage Restaurant of the Year. Members of the family who owns Pilsen taqueria — once a staple at the Maxwell Street Market — took the stage. Owner Gilberto Ramirez hid tears behind a white cowboy hat he used to cover his face. After his family gave their remarks, he took the podium and simply yelled “I love Chicago!” That earned the loudest applause of the night.