CHICAGO – There were plenty of Minnesotans in the Civic Opera House on Monday night at the 25th annual James Beard awards but, unfortunately, all left the building empty-handed.
Lenny Russo of Heartland Restaurant (289 E. 5th St., St. Paul), Paul Berglund of the Bachelor Farmer (50 2nd Av. N., Mpls., www.thebachelorfarmer.com) and Michelle Gayer of the Salty Tart (920 E. Lake St., Mpls., www.saltytart.com) all were nominated in the Best Chef: Midwest category. The winner was six-time nominee Gerard Craft of Niche in St. Louis.
The award recognizes chefs working in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas. The last time a local chef returned home wearing the medallion was in 2011; that was Isaac Becker of 112 Eatery in Minneapolis.
Newcomer Spoon and Stable (211 N. 1st St., Mpls., www.spoonandstable.com) was up for Best New Restaurant with six other high-profile competitors. The winner was Bâtard in New York City.
Spoon and Stable was also in the running for Outstanding Restaurant Design, thanks to the work of David Shea and Cori Kuechenmeister of Shea, the Minneapolis design firm. The winner was Workshop Kitchen + Bar in Palm Springs, Calif.
For its silver anniversary, the James Beard Foundation relocated its awards gala to Chicago, and the city seemingly left no appetizer unturned in rolling out the welcome mat. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner both appeared onstage, a show of political star power that I don’t ever recall seeing in New York City.
Along with a musical opening by host Alton Brown (the TV personality played guitar and sang “Vegetarians scowl when I walk by, vegans try to tempt me with kale pie” to the tune of Sonny & Cher’s classic “The Beat Goes On”), a number of winners offered memorable words of gratitude.
Best Chef: New York City winner Mark Ladner of Del Posto thanked his mom “for introducing me to the canned chickpea, one of my first loves,” he said. Jason Stanhope of FIG in Charleston, S.C., winner of the Best Chef: Southeast award, also thanked his mother, then turned to the audience and said that she would “use the award as leverage to get into all of your restaurants.”
Spike Gjerde of Woodbury Kitchen in Baltimore thanked the audience on behalf of his troubled city, “which needs a little love right now,” he said. And then he promised a colleague that he would indeed Instragram the moment.
One of the biggest laughs of the night came when Best Chef: Great Lakes winner Jonathon Sawyer of Greenhouse Tavern in Cleveland stepped up to the microphone and thanked the Chicago audience “for not booing me,” because he was the only non-Chicagoan nominee in the category.
More laughs came when a video explored where past winners keep their coveted James Beard awards. My favorites? Anne Quatrano of Bacchanalia in Atlanta, who clips the medallion on her key ring, and Ming Tsai of Boston’s Blue Ginger, who uses it on the golf course as a ball marker.
Brown also offered some statistics on 25 years of James Beard awards ceremonies and after-parties: 1,500 medallions, 6,000 minutes of acceptance speeches (including 4,500 long-winded minutes beyond the allotted time), 13,000 bottles of Champagne. “And probably 50,000 hangovers,” he estimated.
While Minnesota was shut out, other states in the region were part of the winning mix. Archie’s Waeside in Le Mars, Iowa — located in the state’s northwestern corner — was a recipient of one of the evening’s five America’s Classics awards, given to restaurants “that have timeless appeal and are beloved for quality food that reflects the character of their community.”
Host city Chicago had a good night (well, not counting Sawyer’s win over four of the city’s top chefs). The Violet Hour won Outstanding Bar Program, Donnie Madia of One Off Hospitality Group (Blackbird, Avec, the Publican) won Outstanding Restaurateur and Chicago-based Bureau of Architecture and Design won in the Best Restaurant Design or Renovation contest (75 seats and under category) for its design of Brindille, the work of Naha co-owners Carrie Nahabedian and Michael Nahabedian.
Finally, the year’s lifetime achievement award went to Chicago restaurateur Richard Melman of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, the innovative operator of more than 100 restaurants, including the Big Bowl chain, Tucci Benucch and Twin City Grill at Mall of America and Wildfire in Eden Prairie.
As is its habit, New York City dominated the competition, winning Outstanding Chef (Michael Anthony, Gramercy Tavern), Outstanding Pastry Chef (Christina Tosi, Momofuku), Outstanding Baker (Jim Lahey, Sullivan Street Bakery) and Best New Restaurant (Bâtard). In addition, Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., just outside New York City and run by chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill in Manhattan, won Outstanding Restaurant.
After a program that seemed to rival the length of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, nearly 2,000 hungry and formally dressed partygoers elbowed their way into just about every nook and cranny of the stately opera house, devouring food and libations prepared by previous James Beard award winners.
Highlights included a sublime lamb coppa with pickled fennel from Justin Aprahamian of Sanford Restaurant in Milwaukee and smoky ribs from Colby Garrelts of Bluestem in Kansas City.
But the most memorable dish was perhaps the simplest: a salad of chickpeas and shaved, roasted carrots tossed with a cumin vinaigrette, from Nancy Silverton of Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles. Find the recipe at http://cbsloc.al/1BsyD0I. I’m so making it at my next party.
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib.