This Major City Is Home To Over 50 James Beard Award Winners

The James Beard Awards are indispensable in the food industry, serving as beacon to the many paragons that exist there. The annual awards ceremony — this year held in Chicago's Lyric Opera House — is when leading chefs and restaurants from around the country are recognized across 22 different categories. The foundation considers more than 100 nominees, and the Chicago restaurant, Lula Café, owned by Jason Hammell, outshined the competition by receiving the distinction of Outstanding Hospitality.

To the James Beard Foundation, this award recognizes a restaurant that sets an example "for the community and demonstrates consistent excellence in food, atmosphere, hospitality, and operations, while contributing positively to its broader community." Hammell considers deeply the way in which Lula Café  impacts its local network, using local growers for produce, being one of the few in the industry to offer its workers healthcare, as well as hosting fundraisers to combat racism, injustice, and those facing food insecurity.

Mayor Brandon Johnson heaped praise onto his own Jewel of the Midwest while addressing attendees at the event, pointing out that the city is well familiar with the James Beard Award. According to the Chicago Tribune, Johnson said proudly, "Chicago is home to more than 50 James Beard award-winning chefs and restaurants whose food, talent, passion and brilliance continue to put our city on the map." In receiving this prize, Lula Café follows a long line of chefs and restaurants that have won this famed accolade in the past.

Chicago's award-winning culinary scene

Chicago is host to some of the most talented chefs in the country, and they have the commendations to prove it. Aside from having 23 Michelin-starred restaurants, the City by the Lake boasts a notable list of previous James Beard Award winners since the observance was introduced in 1991. Restaurants previously honored with this recognition include Sun Wah BBQ. Known for its Beijing duck meal carved table-side, this BYO Chinese restaurant earned a James Beard Award in the category of America's Classic in 2018.

Many Chicago chefs have also been fortunate enough to draw acknowledgment from the James Beard Foundation. Arun Sampanthavivat, head chef at Chicago based Thai restaurant Arun's, was commended with the award for Best Chef: Midwest in 2000. Sarah Stegner, a Chicago-area native, has previously secured two of the influential accolades – one for Rising Star Chef in 1994 and another in 1998 for Best Chef: Midwest. 

One of the highest honors a chef could hope to receive from the James Beard Foundation is the Lifetime Achievement Award, with this year's award going to Ruth Reichl. However, in 2015 Chicago's Lettuce Entertain You owner Rich Melman was lauded with this prestigious praise for successfully expanding his restaurant empire throughout the country with dozens of separate concepts and themes. There have been plenty more winners in the past, but there are also numerous Chicago nominees from this year's ceremony that just missed the honor.

Nominated Chicagoans who came close this year

This year, the Windy City was hoping for more of its hometown nominees to come away winners, but a few were nosed out by other talented chefs and outstanding restaurants from around the country. For the category of Best Chef: Great Lakes Region, Chicago chefs Sujan Sarkar and Jenner Tomaska saw both of their Michelin-starred restaurants edged out by Hajime Sato — the first sushi chef to ever receive a regional James Beard Award. Another Chicagoan whose hopes of receiving an award were dashed at this year's ceremony was Anna Posey and their Michelin-starred restaurant Elske. Posey was nominated in the category of Outstanding Pastry Chef or Baker and was shut out by winner Atsuko Fujimoto of the Portland, Maine establishment Norimoto Bakery. Chicago unfortunately had no nominees in the categories of Outstanding Chef or Outstanding Restaurant, with those honors being bestowed upon Palestinian chef Michael Rafidi from Washington D.C. and Portland, Oregon restaurant Langbaan respectively.

The city was undoubtedly hoping for more medalists, but Lula Café was the only addition to Chi-town's extensive list of James Beard Award winners this time around. Chefs and restaurants throughout the city will have a year to brush up their culinary skills in hopes they can add more hometown icons to the list at the next annual event. It will be held in Chicago again next year, so there will be no shortage of fans in the audience rooting for the home team.