With a fall chill finally settling over Chicago, James Beard Foundation’s Taste America dinner was the perfect way to heat things up. Hosted at the Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel on October 27, the showcase of chefs was a stunner from beginning to end.
The event struck a high note at the start with an elite lineup of Chicago chefs providing delectable bites during the cocktail reception. Andrew Zimmerman of Proxi poured a fragrant kombu broth over a sweet potato and miso torteloni, a deft example of the global flavors found at his restaurant. Jenner Tomaska of Next was no slouch on creativity; his savory take on funnel cake was a delightful combination of the fairground favorite and a morning bagel.
Sandra Holl of Floriole Café and Bakery woke up guests’ taste buds with the Middle Eastern flavor of her za’atar flatbread with beet muhammara. It was Nicole Pederson of Found and The Barn who had the best opening dish, however. Also drawing on the warm spices of the Middle East, her squash, roasted with Persian advieh and served with fermented garlic, yogurt, and apple relish, was a perfect package that tasted just like autumn should.
From there, diners took their seats in the ballroom, where the evening’s emcee Kevin Boehm, co-founder of the Boka Restaurant Group, led a program highlighting the James Beard Foundation’s chef scholarships, including a presentation from the James Beard Foundation’s president, Susan Ungaro. Both a silent and live auction further supported the efforts, with a lively bidding war ensuing for amazing culinary packages such as a James Beard Awards experience and a four-day Lollapalooza package. The biggest bid went to a progressive dinner at Boka restaurants, including Girl & the Goat, Momotaro, and Swift & Sons.
Of course, the star of the evening was the four-course meal. The exclusive menu was crafted by three local chefs and one travelling all-star, and it did not disappoint in either flavor or technique. The first dish came from hosting chef Frank Mnuk of the Radisson Blu Aqua hotel. Wood-roasted heirloom carrots were accompanied with a complex and flavorful burnt bread mole. Almond milk sauce and puffed amaranth rounded out a beautifully earthy first course.
Chicago’s own award-winning Stephanie Izard delivered seared diver scallops for course two. Jamaican jerk spices were pleasant and spicy without overwhelming the dish. Guanciale added depth, while autumn apples balanced it all with a touch of sweetness. Some crispy rice added a needed crunch, tying together a unique seafood dish.
All-star Michael Voltaggio from Ink.well in Los Angeles made his journey worth the attendees’ while with his wagyu beef short ribs. Accompanied by carrots, toasted shallots, tofu mustard, and puffed beef tendon, this final savory dish was a home run. The beef was beyond tender and elevated by the rich flavors of beef tendon and red wine sauce. It was exactly the kind of hearty dish called for on a crisp fall evening.
Mari Katsumura of Gideon Sweet capped the meal with a terrific dessert packed with autumn flavors. Kabocha squash mousse was sandwiched between two buckwheat graham cookies and sprinkled with a pecan-caramel streusel. A dollop of spiced Chantilly cream lent a hint of baking spices to the bite, which was creamy, crunchy, and just the right amount of sweet. Paired with port, it was a worthy end to one of Taste America Chicago’s best menus.
An embrace of seasonal flavors and a showcase of culinary talent spelled success for this year’s Taste America in Chicago. As the city will continue to host the James Beard Foundation Awards, expect that bar to be pushed even higher next year!