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Before we talk about the semifinalists for this year's James Beard Foundation Awards, some perspective is in order. The list, released yesterday, is a short list for the even shorter list of actual finalists, and includes lots of people who aren't really going to be up for an award. The finalists list is full of people who will spend years waiting to get an award, if they ever do. And the Beard Awards are not the final word of God herself; like the Oscars or anything else, they're a snapshot of what people thought was best at the time.
All that said, it's pretty cool that, to judge by the semifinalists list, the Beard Awards get Chicago in a way that, say, a certain tire company still struggles with. They get that high-end dining is undergoing as much radical reinvention here as anywhere in the country, and that your white tablecloths and chichi wine service are only one approach.
Instead, you could helm an informal dining space in which guests can wander into the kitchen and chat with the chef (Phillip Foss, El Ideas), or a laid-back comfort-food restaurant whose spine is a serious historiographical approach to southern cooking (Paul Fehribach, Big Jones), or a south-side hipster spot devoted to all things porky (Jason Vincent, Nightwood), or a quirky forager who came out of underground dining (Iliana Regan, Elizabeth). Most surprisingly, perhaps, you could helm a Macanese hipster spot that came out of underground dining (Abraham Conlon and Adrienne Lo, Fat Rice). Those approaches all earned their chefs semifinalist nods for Best Chef, Great Lakes.
Some bearded guys in a warehouse district in northwest Indiana were recognized as contenders for Outstanding Wine, Spirits or Beer Professionals—the brothers behind Three Floyds in Munster, whose Dark Lord Day offers, shall we say, a somewhat different atmosphere than you're likely to find at last year's winner in this category, Merry Edwards Winery in Sebastopol, California.
Now, it is worth noting that when you look at the national awards, it's a more blue-chip list—Nico Osteria and Brindille are the two short-listed for Best New Restaurant, and those are both more-classical dining spots with Beard-veteran pedigrees (Paul Kahan and Carrie Nahabedian). And then there's the oddity that Spiaggia, which has pretty much had a locked-in spot at the Beard Awards for decades, is nominated for Outstanding Restaurant right as it's between chefs (with Sarah Grueneberg having departed); this would have been a good year not to phone that one in, but to wait and see where the venerable Italian spot is headed next.
These are New York-based awards, so they tend to see our scene based on the chefs they know about (i.e., Paul Kahan). Still, even if the quirkier ones are squeezed out of the final nominees, it means that the headquarters of food media and food high society knows there are things happening out here—things that aren't necessarily associated with the same names that were big here seven or eight years ago.
The full short list for Chicago chefs and others is below. Our Key Ingredient series has covered most of these chefs, including all but one of those on the list for Best chef, Great Lakes, so if you want to see who these chefs are, the videos are embedded below:
Best new restaurant: Brindille, Nico Osteria
Outstanding bar program: The Violet Hour
Outstanding chef: Carrie Nahabedian (Naha)
Outstanding pastry chef: Dana Cree (Blackbird)
Outstanding restaurant: Spiaggia
Outstanding restaurateur: Donnie Madia (One Off Hospitality Group)
Outstanding service: L2O, Topolobampo
Outstanding wine program: Sepia
Outstanding wine, spirits or beer professional: Mike Floyd, Nick Floyd, Simon Floyd, Three Floyds Brewing, Munster, Indiana; Don Feinberg and Wendy Littlefield, Vanberg & DeWulf
Rising star chef of the year: Jimmy Bannos Jr. (the Purple Pig), Matthew Kirkley (L2O), David Posey (Blackbird)
Best chef, Great Lakes: David Beran (Next), Abraham Conlon and Adrienne Lo (Fat Rice), Curtis Duffy (Grace), Paul Fehribach (Big Jones), Phillip Foss (El Ideas), Ryan McCaskey (Acadia), Iliana Regan (Elizabeth), Jason Vincent (Nightwood), Paul Virant (Vie), Erling Wu-Bower (Nico Osteria), Andrew Zimmerman (Sepia)