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Chicago Nabs 19 James Beard Nominations

Tzuco and Politan Row’s Thattu were both nominated for Best New Restaurant.

The kitchen at Tzuco   Photo: Diego Padilla

The first stage in the biggest food awards in America happened today: the announcement of the James Beard Award semifinalists. The awards are often called the Oscars of the food world, with the ceremony held in Chicago on May 4.

The list will be narrowed down in late March, but Chicago snagged 19 nominations this year, meaning there’s a good chance for strong representation on the finalists list.

Before we talk about the Best Chef: Great Lakes category (which I affectionately refer to as the “Chicago and its neighbors” award), let’s look at how things went for our city on the national stage. In a total shocker, the Chicago nominees for Best New Restaurant included a place that I had barely heard of: Thattu, an Indian restaurant (specializing in food from Kerala) inside the Politan Row food hall. The other Chicago entry, Tzuco, comes from a prominent chef, Carlos Gaytan, so that’s less surprising.

That said, and keeping in mind that I very much like Tzuco, we’ve had a pretty solid year for restaurants. If I had to put down bets, I would have put money on places like Galit, Wherewithall, or Jeong instead. (Also, no omakase — take that, Michelin!) In any case, I and everyone else will be heading to Thattu immediately to see what’s going on there.

We can skip Outstanding Baker, because there aren’t any Chicagoans, and we can basically skip Outstanding Bar Program, because Lost Lake, Chicago’s only representative, is just going to be nominated again and again until it finally wins.

There’s a well-deserved nod for Outstanding Chef — for Monteverde’s Sarah Grueneberg, for the second year in a row — and a first-time nomination for Lula Café’s Emily Spurlin for Outstanding Pastry Chef.

A few other worthy, but not surprising choices: Spiaggia got a nod for Outstanding Wine Program, and Boka got a nomination for Outstanding Restaurant. Interestingly, in the Rising Star Chef category, two Chicago chefs were nominated: Alisha Elenz, the talented chef in charge of both mfk and Bar Biscay, and Jeanine Lamadieu, who was nominated for Yūgen but actually left the restaurant in December.

The list of nominees for Best Chef: Great Lakes is, as usual, dominated by Chicago, in about the same proportion (half the nominees) as it has been in the past. The real question is: Will it be entirely swamped by Chicagoans when we get to the finals?

In the meantime, there are some awesome (and predictable) entries on the list, including Noah Sandoval of Oriole, Thai Dang of HaiSous, Lee Wolen of Boka, John and Karen Shields of Smyth, and Jason Hammel of Lula Café. There are also some happy surprises, including Gene Kato of Momotaro (who I’ve always thought was underrated by awards committees), Mariya Russell of Kikkō, and Erick Williams of Virtue, all of whom have had amazing years.

In an interesting twist, someone on the Beard nominating committee loves Cellar Door Provisions and Frontier, as both Ethan Pikas and Brian Jupiter have received nominations for the last two years. They’re both great restaurants, but it’s a little surprising to see them on the list as repeat entries.

Once again, it all comes down to who makes the finals, and we won’t know that until next month. Until then, as always, hang on to the Best Chef: Great Lakes semifinalists list, as it’s the best way to figure out good places to go — both in Chicago and nearby — before they win the big awards and become impossible to get into.

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