For nearly three decades, the James Beard Foundation has been presenting its esteemed awards ceremony honoring chefs, restaurateurs and other food and beverage personnel who have made a difference in the culinary world.
This year, for the first time, the country's culinary giants will gather in Chicago for the monumental event. The 2015 James Beard Awards will be presented May 4 at Lyric Opera of Chicago.
"The James Beard Foundation has enjoyed a special friendship with the city of Chicago for decades," said Susan Ungaro, president of the James Beard Foundation. "It's a city that boasts over 40 James Beard Award winners, as well as a special community of chefs and restaurateurs who have supported the work of our foundation. We believe celebrating our 2015 Awards in Chicago is consistent with our mission to honor excellence all across America."
Founded in 1986, The James Beard Foundation's mission is to "celebrate, nurture and honor America's diverse culinary heritage through programs that educate and inspire." James Beard, a cookbook author and culinary teacher who died in 1985, was dedicated to the culinary field and to gastronomic education.
The James Beard Foundation opened the James Beard House in 1986 and regularly features fundraising dinners prepared by chefs from the country's best restaurants.
Known as the Oscars of the culinary world, the James Beard Awards were first presented in New York City in 1990.
A good selection of Chicago's culinary stars were among the finalists for the 2015 James Beard Awards and were recently announced. They include Tanya Baker for Rising Star Chef of the Year. Baker, executive chef of Alpana Singh's The Boarding House in Chicago, is a Munster native.
Among other Chicago area finalists were Parachute for Best New Restaurant; The Violet Hour for Outstanding Bar Program; Rick Bayless' Topolobampo for Outstanding Service; Donnie Madia, of One Off Hospitality Group, for Outstanding Restaurateur; Curtis Duffy, of Grace, Erling Wu-Bower, of Nico Osteria, Andrew Zimmerman, of Sepia, and Paul Virant, of Western Springs' Vie, all for Best Chef: Great Lakes.
Annually, a Lifetime Achievement Award is presented during the course of the evening and this year, attendees will cheer Richard Melman, of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises. Host for the gala program is TV personality Alton Brown.
Also receiving foundation nods this year were Mike, Nick and Simon Floyd, of Three Floyds Brewing in Munster, who were named semi-finalists in the Outstanding Wine, Spirits and Beer Professionals category. They were also nominated in that category in 2014.
Region seafood fans will also remember Calumet Fisheries on Chicago's Southeast Side won a James Beard Award in 2010 in the American Classics category.
Foundation president Ungaro said the awards are essentially "career-changers" for culinary professionals.
"As immediate as the day following the awards, they experience a positive impact on their careers and their businesses," she said.
Martial Noguier, executive chef and owner of Chicago's Bistronomic, said it's exciting to have the awards ceremony in the Windy City this year.
"They recognize that Chicago is a good city for restaurants and we have very good chefs in Chicago," Noguier said. The chef was nominated in past years as a semi-finalist for Bistronomic in the category of Best New Restaurant and also for a past Best Chef-Great Lakes when he was also at Cafe des Architectes in Chicago.
For a chef to be nominated for a James Beard Award, it's important," he said. During Chicago's recent Restaurant Week festivities, Noguier created a menu of James Beard favorites at Bistronomic from the legendary culinary teacher's cookbook. The chef has also cooked special dinners at the James Beard House in New York City when he was executive chef of Chicago's The Pump Room and 160 Blue.
Ungaro said Chicago is "often recognized as one of the best food cities in America. We are so pleased to bring the awards to Chicago in 2015 as we celebrate 25 years of gastronomic progress and the chefs and culinary luminaries who have shaped the food world as we know it today."
As part of the foundation, scholarships and professional grants are given through the organization.
"The James Beard Foundation's scholarship program is an integral part of our mission...For more than two decades now, the James Beard Foundation has nurtured and educated the next generation of great chefs, restaurateurs, sommeliers and beverage experts through our prestigious scholarship program," Ungaro said. "As of 2015, we will have awarded over $5.6 million in financial aid to 1, 750 admirable recipients. But getting the scholarship is not just about the money, it's also an encouragement factor - and we want to make sure that there is an opportunity for anyone who wants to pursue a career in the food world."
More than $500,000 in scholarships and grants will be available this year, which is the largest amount to date. Among the scholarships awarded will be the new Charlie Trotter Memorial Scholarship.
For more information on the foundation and awards ceremony, visit jamesbeard.org.