It was a party in Chicago last Sunday night as the dining community came together to celebrate the Jean Banchet Awards. Now in its 16th year, the awards are a Chicago-focused honor, recognizing the efforts and creativity of the Windy City’s chefs, mixologists, and restaurants. The nominations were stacked with heavy hitters from Chicago’s culinary scene, a fitting snapshot of dining in 2017.
Michael Muser, the former general manager of the now-closed Grace, kicked off the night with a barrage of jokes, with topics ranging from the devious glee of telling diners what they should be eating to a nod towards the surprise shutter of his three Michelin-starred restaurant (though no revelations were shared).
The entertainment continued as presenters paired with the ensemble from The Restaurant web series to deliver industry laughs as awards were presented. The event took its time for touching moments as well, including a solemn In Memorium, the presentation of the Banchet Culinary Achievement Award to Katsu and Hauko Imamura of Katsu, and a segment about the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, where the proceeds of the event were donated.
We talked to some of the winners about the Chicago dining scene, lessons they have learned, and what winning tastes like.
The Daily Meal: What makes Chicago dining scene special?
Nick Dostal, Sixteen, Rising Chef of the Year: That’s easy. I grew up in Chicago. I looked up to pretty much half of the room here. There’s a competition, but it’s a friendly competition. I’d be happy if anyone else won in this category, or any other category. I truly believe that everyone who works in Chicago and cooks food does it for the people in those seats.
Amit Gilad, GreenRiver, Best Mixologist: I think what makes it special is people, mostly. A lot of people that just push the envelope every day, just trying to make the best drinks and food that they can. I love the people; I love the passion.
Bill Montagne, Nico Osteria, Best Chef-de-Cuisine: I think that one really special thing about the Chicago restaurant scene is that it’s a very supportive group. I really enjoy any time that I can spend with fellow chefs and restaurateurs and mixologists in the city. I think that we all, rather than being competitive against each other, we really try to support each other, and more so compete with ourselves and push ourselves. It makes for a really nice culture to create and work in.
Anna Posey, Elske, Pastry Chef of the Year: To be here is really special because I’ve worked for some of these chefs and look up to so many of these chefs, and they’re all just so supportive. Jean Banchet is almost like your friends getting together and having a big party and awarding you, so it’s super cool.
Andrew Zimmerman, Sepia & Proxi, Chef of the Year: I think that one of the main things about it is how it’s surprisingly inclusive. For a bunch of people who are really in direct competition with each other most of the time, from the time I moved to Chicago until now, about 15 years almost, everyone was so generous and welcoming, and the camaraderie between the chefs is something that only really makes the restaurant scene and community stronger, and that’s terrific.
What’s a lesson you’ve learned?
Amir Gilad: Just be behind the bar as much as possible. Connect with people, create relationships, create a community behind the bar, and just enjoy.
Bill Montagne: It is not necessarily a new lesson to learn, but something to be reinforced: the importance of team. It’s truly about the team, having the right direction for the team, and finding ways to get everyone to grow in the same direction.
Andrew Zimmerman: To remember that the business is about hospitality and being generous, and that doesn’t necessarily mean only to our guests, but to our staff and on the rare occasion when it’s possible, to yourself when you can.
What does winning taste like?
Nick Dostal: Champagne! But it’s been a really hard year for us at Sixteen, and it tastes like people really do recognize what we’re doing with our food, what we’re doing on the plate, what we’re doing with our front of the house team, and that’s what matters. They’re not looking at where we are; they’re looking at the hard work we’re doing every day, and that means the world.
Anna Posey: I’m still nervous! I’m not very good at getting on stage, but it’s very cool. We work really, really hard, and especially with opening Elske, it’s been a tough year. We put in 14, 16 hours every day. It really means a lot.
Andrew Zimmerman: That’s a really good question. At the moment, adrenaline.