The James Beard Foundation honored the industry’s best on Monday night in Chicago, bestowing awards upon chefs, restaurants, restaurateurs and more. The winners headlined the news, but reinforced in the subtext running through the three-hour ceremony were several trends that are currently impacting the restaurant business in a big way.
1. Love your farmer
The phrase “farm-to-table” has been overused to the point of cliche, but farmers, fishermen and ranchers figure prominently in the success of today’s restaurants. Several of the winning chefs gave a heartfelt shoutout to individual purveyors, underpinning the importance of ingredient sourcing and forging a connection with the people who grow, catch and supply restaurants’ food.
2. Everything old is new again
Barbecue, chicken, burgers, Mexican and Mediterranean. Mention these cuisines and one might think we’re naming the hottest players in the hot fast-casual segment. But these are the concepts that were crowned as the JBF American Classics this year—iconic restaurants that have been around for generations and continue to thrive. Today’s restaurant culture also is thriving on the very same types of food, in a return to simplicity and authenticity.
3. Mentoring powers the industry
Some of the winning chefs were young; others had worked in restaurant kitchens for decades—but no matter their age, many attributed their success to supportive mentors. Jonathan Waxman, winner of Best Chef: New York City for his restaurant Barbuto, started cooking in California in the ‘80s. In his acceptance speech, he thanked his mentor—no other than Alice Waters—for her tremendous influence on his career. Millennial Justin Devillier, named Best Chef: South for La Petite Grocery in New Orleans, called out John Besh and other Southern legends as his mentors.
4. Casualization of fine dining
Upscale restaurants have long dominated the Beard Awards, and several were singled out this year, including Alinea for Outstanding Restaurant; Grace for Best Chef: Great Lakes; and Eleven Madison Park for Outstanding Service. But there was a noticeable drift toward recognizing more casual spots. Ken Friedman, who won Outstanding Restaurateur, runs gastropubs The Spotted Pig and The Breslin in New York City. Rising Star Chef Daniela Soto-Innes cooks at Cosme, a Mexican shared-plates restaurant. And Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo won Best Chef: West for their restaurant Animal, a nose-to-tail concept. In a number of categories, these winners beat out pricey fine-dining nominees.