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The Best and Worst of the 2016 James Beard Awards

Alinea took home one of the top honors at the food world’s most glamorous night. Here are the ceremony’s highs and lows.

Post-James Beard Awards banquet in the lobby of the Lyric Opera   Photo: Carrie Schedler

Best

Chicago guys getting their due. Though Chicagoans got shut out of the early awards (Outstanding Pastry Chef, Outstanding Service, Outstanding Restaurateur, basically every other category where we scored a nomination), there were a couple of big wins last night. First, Alinea walked away with the Outstanding Restaurant title in its first year of eligibility (you have to have been on the scene for ten years before you’re up for consideration), a fitting tribute to the restaurant preparing to reopen as its reinvented self later this spring. Also, though a Chicagoan was guaranteed a victory in the Best Chef: Great Lakes category (our guys were the only ones nominated in the category), it was nice to see Curtis Duffy win, especially since he brought his daughters onstage with him to accept the prize. Aww.

Leah Chase. The 93-year-old New Orleans legend and newly minted Lifetime Achievement Award winner was undoubtedly the star of the night. She managed to roast President Obama for deigning to ask for hot sauce in his gumbo at her restaurant (“What does Mr. Obama from Chicago know about gumbo? Nothing.") and flirt with chefs John Besh and Marcus Samuelsson, who introduced her, all while getting in some serious heartfelt storytelling. Consider this the formal beginning of our campaign to have her host the whole thing next year.

Beards. The guys from Land and Sea Dept., while accepting their prize for restaurant design for Cherry Circle Room, joked about having beards at the Beards. So meta. (A special commendation to Best Chef: Northeast winner Zak Pelaccio, who, in addition to wearing a fantastic floppy hat, took the hirsute look to its I’m Still Here-era Joaquin Phoenix extreme.)

Onstage copy-editing. Ken Friedman of NYC’s the Breslin and Spotted Pig, reminded us all that there’s no n in “restaurateur.” Felt like he’d been saving that line for just the right moment.

Squirrel meat. Cleveland’s Jonathon Sawyer, last year’s Best Chef: Great Lakes winner, served a crepinette at the post-gala banquet that included squirrel meat. Credit where credit’s due: It was pretty delicious. Will it be trending in 2017?

Worst

The acoustics. They were straight-up terrible—speeches sounded oddly blurred. We were happy to have a video feed of the chefs onstage for easier viewing, but some subtitles would have helped.

The sponsor slog. We get it, it’s the business of keeping one of these things afloat: You’ve gotta work in the names and representatives of the people providing the money for the event into the ceremony itself. After a while, though, it begins to feel like a flurry of self-aggrandizement.

The post-gala banquet. So it should be a dream come true, having some of the country’s best restaurants offering up tastings from stations scattered throughout the Lyric Opera’s corridors and side rooms. But it turns into a hellish cluster of tuxed-up and ballgowned chefs who are A) starving and B) trying to wish one another well in some of the narrowest hallways imaginable. Here is our idea for the awards next year: Have them at the United Center, then turn the court into an obscenely large, spacious buffet. Glamorous!

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