• James Beard Foundation
  • Donnie Madia accepting his Outstanding Restaurateur award from Lidia Bastianich

We invited the food world (well, of America anyway) to honor our hot chefs and restaurants, and we wound up paying tribute to restaurant owners instead. But that’s not a bad thing. Last night’s James Beard Foundation Awards, held at Lyric Opera in the first installment of a three-year stop in Chicago, reminded us that just as we often overlook the producers of movies in favor of the directors, our restaurant scene is at least as much the work of entrepreneurs seeking to fill (or create) a market niche, as it is the work of chefs seeking to put their vision on the plate.

Lots of members of the local and national food media sought coveted seats on the floor of Lyric Opera or in the media room—which many ended up being somewhat sorry they’d gotten, since the audio feed was reportedly inaudible. Me, I decided to catch the live stream from the comfort of my own home. I’d devoted my going-out energies to the parties that went on all weekend. Chicago’s chefs cheerfully saluted themselves and, along the way, offered previews of some upcoming places (at one, I managed to try food and cocktails from Hai Sous, the place said to be coming from Thai Dang after the Embeya imbroglio; Sarah Grueneberg had offerings from her upcoming Monteverdi, and Jason Vincent from whatever he’s up to).

Meanwhile back at the opera house, the night began with host Alton Brown—who, over the course of the evening, sang and played guitar like he was auditioning for A Prairie Home Companion—and some short films about past winners, one of which offered some whimsical answers to the question of what winners do with their medals (Grant Achatz is promptly seen dipping a handful of them into liquid nitrogen). A better film, probably the hit of the evening, enlisted the help of Second City to tell the story of a supposed Chef Whisperer responsible for guiding nearly every chef toward his or her destiny. A one-joke idea, but well executed with major star power—including Mayor Emanuel and Governor Rauner, who also turned up live to soak in some chef glory.

Amid some of the regional awards, Grant Achatz asked for a moment of silence in memory of Homaro Cantu. What didn’t happen in the first part of the show was Chicago winning any major awards. Tonya Baker of the Boarding House, relatively little known here as yet, did not go on to win Best Rising Chef, and with four Chicagoans nominated for Best Chef Great Lakes, the award went to Jonathon Sawyer of the Greenhouse Tavern in Cleveland. Instead, the highlight was a tribute to Rich Melman of Lettuce Entertain You, who gave a wise and heartfelt speech, well worth watching, about trying and failing and trying again. Melman was the original restaurant impresario in Chicago, starting with casual joints and working up to four star restaurants over the years, and even if you’re not wild about his and his children’s recent efforts, his enormous impact deserves recognition. “I’ve probably made more mistakes than anybody in this room, because I’ve tried so many different ideas,” Melman said, in what would be a humble brag coming from someone else, but is undeniable truth coming from him.

Even being out of town for the first time, the Beard Awards leaned strongly toward New York—playing the home game, you could have seemed clairvoyant by shouting out “Batard” or “Christina Tosi” or “Blue Hill at Stone Barns” right before the envelopes were opened. Still, in the end Chicago picked up three awards. The Violet Hour won outstanding bar program; Brindille won best design for restaurants under 75 seats; and one of the figures who has most successfully followed in Rich Melman’s footsteps as an opener of distinct restaurant concepts both high and low, Donnie Madia, won Outstanding Restaurateur after being a runner-up for many years. Where Melman was Talmudically sage, Madia was as rabbit jittery as if it were opening night at a new restaurant as he thanked his partners, including Paul Kahan. After he was finished, he bounded back to the microphone to thank the people he’d forgotten: his wife and kids.

The evening ended with good vibes for a generally well-pulled-off event—only for sad news to follow immediately. Josh Ozersky, 47, founder of Grub Street and later a writer for Time and Esquire, was found dead in his Chicago hotel room earlier in the day. Ozersky, like so many here for the Beards, was more of a New York figure than one who had direct readership in Chicago, but his early 2000s tenure running Grub Street continues to shape online food media to this day, including the ethical questions that have yet to be fully resolved with the need to pay for a media operation. Outspoken and compelling and often controversial, losing him is a blow to the scene, not to mention a tragedy.