UPDATE: The 2015 Beard nominations were released today. Surprise surprise, the EXACT SAME TREND continued as below - 4/5 Best Chef: Great Lakes nominees are from Chicago or the suburbs. If you're listening, Beard Award committee, give Chicago a real category already!
Original Posted May 20, 2014
The big news of the day is that the James Beard Foundation has agreed to move their big awards gala, the Oscars of the Food World, to Chicago. Finally, as the head of the Michelin Guide told us years ago when the guide came to Chicago, we are a world class food city.
Except, of course, that we were a world class food city before JBF came, just like we were before Michelin came. Anyway, I digress. This move calls attention to Chicago's growing stature in the restaurant world and its centrality to the scene. However, there's still one strange thing: The only city in America that gets its own JBF chef award category is New York. Not Chicago, not LA, not Birmingham, Alabama, but New York, which has so much going on that it deserves a category apart from the rest of the "Northeast."
That's fine. I understand the logic, which presumably is that NY chefs would dominate the category such that no one else in those Northeast states would get any attention.
Which is exactly why Chicago deserves its own category. I remember when the nominees were announced a few months back at the Publican. The applause was deafening for the Chicago nominees, and then Jonathan Sawyer was announced from Cleveland and there was total silence. Why? Because Great Lakes is the de facto Chicago category already - and that does a disservice to the rest of the region.
Let's take a look at the numbers. This year, four of the five chef finalists for Best Chef: Great Lakes were from Chicago. The lone lake-y holdout, Jonathan Sawyer from Cleveland, was also nominated in 2013, where he was, once again, the only non-Chicago chef.
This trend keeps going back. In 2010, 2011 and 2012, only one non-Chicago chef was a finalist for Best Chef: Great Lakes. 2009 was a banner year for the rest of the region, as two chefs managed to eke their way in.
This becomes even more problematic when we look at the semifinalists, where Chicago isn't nearly so numerically dominant. 2014 was a banner year for our city, with 11/20 of the Great Lakes semifinalists coming from Chicago. In 2013 it was 9/20, in 2012 it was 8/20 and in 2011 it was 7/20. This had no impact at all on the finals, where Chicago still dominated with 4/5 each time. It's possible the other semifinalists weren't very good. It's also possible Chicago is simply in another category.
Why is this a problem? Because it means that, effectively, any chef throughout the rest of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio isn't going to get to the finals.
If we look at the Best Chef: Midwest category, while Minneapolis tends to dominate with two nominations each year, there is also room for chefs from St. Louis, Kansas City, Madison, Milwaukee and, most recently, Clayton, MO.
If Chicago got its own category, what would happen? Well, in that category, 5/5 of the nominations would be from Chicago. Duh. And perhaps there would need to be some rebalancing of states (since Best Chef: Midwest covers eight states and Best Chef: Great Lakes only covers four).
But great chefs throughout the "interior," in the "flyover" states, would have a much better chance of having their outstanding work recognized. We Chicagoans could fight amongst ourselves, and everyone would be happy.