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The 2015 James Beard Awards: pig roasts and Alton Brown on guitar

This year's James Beard Awards, the Oscars of the food world, were held in Chicago

For the first time in its 25-year history, the James Beard Awards, which concluded Monday night, were held not in New York City but in Chicago. And boy, did Chicago roll out the red carpet for the restaurant awards. (The journalism and book awards took place in New York the previous week.)

Banners along Michigan Avenue’s “magnificent mile” welcomed the 25th annual James Beard Awards. Chicago restaurants gave parties the weekend before the Monday night ceremony, so many that Uber seemed to be always on surge pricing as attendees moved from venue to venue. The smart ones walked — and logged in the miles in this very walkable city.

The Purple Pig gave a party for Brooklyn’s Maison Premiere and San Francisco’s Trick Dog, both nominated for Best Bar Program. Three Dots and a Dash had a pig roast and tiki party with Tim Hollingsworth of Barrel & Ashes in Studio City doing the pig honors with Bub City’s Christian Eckmann. The two started rubbing down that pig with rum and pineapple 27 hours before it was presented at the party in an alley outfitted with hula dancers, live music and drink booths. L.A.’s master mixologist Julian Cox was at one, shaking up Brilliantshine Hotel Nacional.

And that was just part of one afternoon. Tuscan butcher Dario Cecchini was in town wearing a vest in the colors of the Italian flag, red pants — and red Crocs. “Never orange!” he said, laughing. He put out a lavish spread at RPM Italian, including lardo, chicken liver crostini, Tuscan meatloaf and more roast pig. Soho House Chicago welcomed a rowdy, cacophonous crowd for drinks and snacks — and a giant cake. Chicago chefs welcomed chefs from everywhere else in the afternoon, and again at night and in between times.

And everybody had to try Chicago’s restaurants. Some had made reservations for Alinea’s 10th anniversary dinner. Some had a Chicago steakhouse on their lists, the cheeseburger at Au Cheval, the tasting menu at Blackbird or Italian at Nico Osteria. At Parachute, a casual Korean place nominated for best new restaurant, Mexican chef Enrique Olvera of New York City’s Cosme and  Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski  of San Francisco’s State Bird Provisions and the Progress, also nominated in the same category, dug into fried tapioca and pork belly and mung bean pancakes.

The awards were held last night at the Lyric Opera House of Chicago — quite a step up from the dreary Lincoln Center venue of old. And as the nominees lined up to run the press gantlet and be duly photographed in front of a background with the James Beard Foundation logo, there were shout outs, hugs, well wishes — a warm moment of glamour for a hardworking, hard-sweating profession. It’s always fun to see young chefs sporting tuxedos and fedoras, gowns and jewels.

Inside, once everyone had taken their seats, Alton Brown started things off playing a (red) electric guitar and belting out an homage to meat “and the meat goes on,” based, of course, on the Sonny & Cher song. “Vegans try to tempt me with kale pie. And the meat goes on.” You get the idea.

Los Angeles may not have taken home any major chef awards last night, but we did have one big moment when Fernando Lopez and his wife, Maria de Jesus, came onstage to accept an America’s Classics for their Oaxacan restaurant Guelaguetza. 

While the ceremony was going on (and on), the gala chefs and their crews were setting up downstairs and on the mezzanine with an army of young cooking students and workers to help. From L.A., Nancy Silverton (last year’s Outstanding Chef award winner) and Osteria Mozza chef Elizabeth Hong dished out simple and delicious roasted carrots with ceci and cumin vinaigrette.

Invitations to after parties had gone out weeks before and outside, tuxes and gowns piled into taxis and SUVs headed to one or the other or all. At Frontera Grill, Rick Bayless welcomed Bazaar chef Jose Andres and Humanitarian of the Year Michel Nischan of Wholesome Waves, the Lopez family of Guelaguetza in Los Angeles, Del Maguey mezcal founder Ron Cooper, mixologist Dale DeGroff aka King Cocktail (a Who’s Who inductee), Steve Olson aka wine geek, and more.

It was a fantastical scene with a contortionist performing on top of the bar, a juggler with glow-in-the-dark balls, wine and mezcal dispensed from Rube Goldberg contraptions — and plenty of delicious little bites. Maybe next year, Los Angeles will even get some awards to take home too. 

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