Nominations for the Jean Banchet Awards, the closest thing to an Oscars for Chicago chefs, were announced this morning. Nominated for best chef are . . . oh, come on, we all know Curtis Duffy of Grace is going to win it. With his two new Michelin stars (to go with the two he won back at the now-closed Avenues in 2010), Duffy seems a safe bet to win a Jean Banchet Award—as he did at Avenues in 2011. The complete list can be seen below, but Duffy's status as Chicago's and America's next great chef continues to be ratified. (In fact, that's exactly the phrase I used to convince my New York editors to run a video series I made about him for Grub Street nationally, saying that he wasn't just going to be Chicago news for much longer.)
Duffy was the leading protege of Grant Achatz at Alinea before he joined Avenues as head chef (replacing Graham Elliot Bowles). Which brings us to Dave Beran, chef de cuisine of Next, who won a Jean Banchet award for that position in 2012. Next and Beran haven't had the Michelin love Duffy has enjoyed, so they just have to settle for being the most talked-about and attention-getting restaurant in town.
Especially when they announce a new season of menus, as they did yesterday. Word was already out about Next: Chicago Steak, and paradoxically, the past menu it most suggested was Next Childhood, in that it seems to be taking nostalgic foods and giving them a modernist, even ironic spin. At a price which may be the highest yet for a Next menu, it is presumably going to make sure to deliver on primal satisfactions (as Childhood, intellectually engaging as it was, didn't really). Still, is a 50s steak dinner served entirely in quotes a throwback to audience-pleasing comfort foods, or a step forward into even more abstract conceptual dining from Next?
What's surprising is that Next's other two menus also seem, in some ways, to be looking back at where Grant Achatz and company have been. Chinese: Modern promises a molecular take on Chinese dining (something already being done in a few upscale restaurants in China, like the multisensory "mystery restaurant" Ultraviolet in Shanghai or Bo Innovation in Hong Kong). Which, in fact, was one of the ideas tossed around in Next's earliest days—"Hong Kong 2036," which one took to mean a futuristic take on Chinese flavors. But putting Asian flavors into gels or onto weird Tim Burton serving pieces isn't the future any more—it's right now, because of Achatz's influence. Never has Next's own name seemed such an imperious command.
The final menu is Next executive chef-owner Achatz taking a valedictory look at his own work—reviving dishes from Trio, Henry Adaniya's long-running, now-closed Evanston restaurant, where Achatz made his name in the early 2000s and first introduced Chicagoans to his food science-theater style of presentation and approach to flavor. Given that he went from Trio to Alinea in a largely unbroken progression, it will be interesting to see how they make the distinction between what Achatz was doing a decade-plus ago and all the years of Alinea since.
Or the distinction between Alinea's history as carried on by Achatz, and Alinea's history as Curtis Duffy broke off from it and went his own way. Duffy's cuisine has evolved in his own direction—it's much less about theatrics and more about minute precision than Alinea's. (Talk to some diners and you'll hear that the chiseled Duffy in Grace's glassed-in kitchen is all the show they need.) But Duffy's cooking is also, in a sense, an alternate history of the Alinea approach from one of its top practitioners. At this moment of Grant Achatz's ascendance among American chefs, our top restaurants seem to be putting on a kind of retrospective consideration of his art and influence—for those who can afford it, anyway.
Here are the 2013 Jean Banchet award nominees:
Chef of the Year: Curtis Duffy (Grace), Carrie Nahabedian (Naha), Paul Virant (Vie, Perennial Virant), Andrew Zimmerman (Sepia)
Pastry Chef of the Year: Lisa Bonjour (MK), Craig Harzewski (Naha), Elissa Narow (Vie, Perennial Virant), Leigh Omilinsky (Cafe des Architectes)
Best Chef de Cuisine: Ali Ratcliffe-Bauer (Brindille), Andres Padilla (Topolobampo), Sean Pharr (NoMi Kitchen), Nicholas Romero (Grace)
Rising Chef of the Year: Thai Dang (Embeya), Nicole Pederson (Found), Tom Van Lente (Two), Lee Wolen (formerly of Lobby Restaurant at the Peninsula Chicago)
Rising Pastry Chef of the Year: Dana Cree (Blackbird), Sarah Mispagel (Nightwood), Thomas Raquel (Acadia), Bobby Schaffer (Grace)
Best Sommelier: Valerie Cao (Grace), Chad Ellegood (NoMi Kitchen), Richard Hanauer (The Langham), Arthur Hon (Sepia)
Best Mixologist: Charles Joly (the Aviary), Paul McGee (Three Dots and a Dash), Danielle Pizzutillo (Embeya), Sergio Serna (the Drawing Room)
Best Restaurant Design: Balena, Boarding House, Brindille, Embeya
Best Restaurant Service: Balena, Grace, Nightwood, Sixteen
The winners will be announced at the Grand Chefs' Gala benefiting the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation on January 31.