On Monday afternoon, hospitality leaders from across the U.S. — fully decked-out in sky-high heels, tuxedos, and in one case, an enormous flower-shaped hat — descended on the Lyric Opera of Chicago to mark the first James Beard Foundation culinary awards gala since 2019.
Chicago had nine finalists going into the event, but in the end, only one went home with a medal: Erick Williams, the veteran chef behind Virtue, a Southern restaurant in Hyde Park that pays tribute to his own family’s recipes, was dubbed Best Chef: Great Lakes. Williams was nominated for this award once before. In 2020. Virtue was chosen as one of Eater’s Best New Restaurants in 2019.
Despite the three-year hiatus, the affair’s dazzle hadn’t diminished: From wide-eyed passersby gawking at a bustling red carpet to joyful screaming embraces between long-separated friends, the energy of the crowd was palpable before proceedings even began.
The mood outside was so buoyant that one could even, just for a moment, forget the trials the industry still suffers in the ongoing pandemic. Upon stepping inside the opera house, however, the specter of the virus couldn’t be avoided. Attendees were required to furnish proof of COVID-19 vaccination at the door, and though most guests weren’t masked, the crowd was dotted with covered faces.
Even a gathering storm, which at one point grew so severe that a chorus of cell phones blared a tornado warning, couldn’t dampen attendees’s spirits. As reporters were temporarily shuffled from a windowed press room into the basement as a safety measure, host Kwame Onwuachi (Rising Star Chef, 2019) managed to maintain a lively atmosphere amid many costume changes, at one point sharing the mic with his mother to announce nominees. As in years past, the foundation also bolstered the energy with non-chef presenters like actors Christian Clemenson — currently portraying James Beard himself on the HBO show Julia — and Jeremy Allen White of the Showtime drama Shameless and Hulu’s The Bear.
Though the host city could have used a little more love in the awards department, the industry finally got to see the results of the foundation’s promise to address a 2020 controversy that raised questions about the integrity of the awards. Leadership conducted an audit, made a number of changes, and diversified the judging committees. Their efforts appear to have paid off, with 16 Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC) winners in 22 categories.
Peek at the red carpet and explore the post-ceremony reception inside Union Station in the photographs below. A full list of award winners is available on Eater.