Chicago’s nickname is The Second City, and it’s always carried it with a bit of a chip on its shoulder. Though initially an indicator of population, it’s now seen as reference to the fact that Chicago constantly seems to come up short compared to The Big Apple, New York City. In areas of fashion, music, and business, New York City has always edged Chicago out, winning the title of America’s Culture Capital.
When it comes to the culinary scene, that notion may be changing. For the first time in its 25-year history, the James Beard Awards moved from New York to Chicago, where they will stay until 2017. This recognition by one of the most esteemed culinary organizations in the country — that Chicago has a food community worthy of hosting these “Oscars of food” — is indicative of a shift in the national scene as a whole.
The decision to move the JBAs from New York to Chicago began innocently enough at a dinner hosted at the James Beard House in November 2013. Alpana Singh, master sommelier, former host of Emmy-award-winning restaurant review show, Check, Please!, and owner of The Boarding House and Seven Lions, planted the seed for the idea in a conversation with the vice chairperson of the James Beard Foundation Board, Fred Seegal.
In their discussion about the future of the James Beard Awards, Singh asked if they would ever consider bringing them to Chicago. Seegal was open to the idea; he had worked with Mayor Rahm Emanuel in the past and was interested in doing so again. Singh took the idea to Don Welsh, president and CEO of Choose Chicago, who then reached out to Mayor Emanuel, who enlisted the Illinois Restaurant Association to get the wheels in motion.
Welsh and Sam Toia, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association, took the reins from there. Their team met with Susan Ungaro, president of the James Beard Foundation, to discuss financial aspects and how to engage the Chicago restaurant community. For both Welsh and Toia, hosting the JBAs was a huge opportunity to meet the tourism goal of 55 million visitors to the city by 2020. Culinary tourism has become a huge driver; Toia even professed that he believed it could be just as big a draw to tourists as Chicago sports.
Some of Chicago’s greatest chefs added their efforts to the campaign to bring the Beard Awards to Chicago. Welsh said, “The James Beard Awards bring bragging rights to Chicago, but when it came to making it happen, egos were checked at the door. You had big chefs like Rick Bayless, Grant Achatz, and Paul Kahan, but they were all there to represent Chicago collectively.” Hosting the JBAs legitimizes Chicago as one of the top culinary destinations in the country, he added. “When someone decides to bring a program like the [James Beard Awards], it really designates the city as a great food destination.”
For Singh, to see the reality of hosting the Awards spring from an offhand conversation feels like “kismet.” She thought it insightful of the Foundation to see that the epicenter of food is no longer limited to the traditional culinary epicenters. They are examining the greater national scene and recognizing the outstanding culinary feats that are being done in “everyone’s backyard.”
Having the Awards in Chicago will encourage local chefs and restaurateurs to push the envelope, said Singh. “There’s a wider national audience watching now… More chefs will feel like making that leap of faith. They’ll be encouraged by the fact that they don’t have to move to those traditional hubs to make their mark. They can make an impact right here, right now, in Chicago.”