Chefs from McDonald's, Cava, Del Taco and more honored with 2024 MenuMasters awards

The annual event recognized menu innovation at five restaurant chains, plus Chef Nancy Silverton’s induction into the MenuMasters Hall of Fame.
The 2024 MenuMasters awards celebrate culinary innovation at restaurants across the industry. | Photos by Gr8y Productions

Chefs from Cava, McDonald’s, Del Taco, Fogo de Chao and Tender Greens gathered in Chicago Saturday evening to accept 2024 MenuMasters awards for culinary innovation. Also honored at the ceremony was celebrated chef and restaurateur Nancy Silverton, who was inducted into the MenuMasters Hall of Fame.

The awards didn’t stop there. Meherwan Irani of the Chai Pani Restaurant Group in Asheville, N.C., was named this year’s Innovator, and Samuel “Sam the Cooking Guy” Zien, based in San Diego, was recognized as Digital Innovator.

Silverton, who pioneered the artisanal bread movement with the launch of La Brea Bakery, and is a founder of Mozza Restaurant Group with outposts in Los Angeles, Singapore and other global locales, was “absolutely surprised” when she heard she was being inducted into the Hall of Fame.

“I grew up in the business, reading Gourmet and Food & Wine and other food magazines, but I always learned a lot from industry publications,” she said. “MenuMasters is an award of the people, not a popularity contest. I’ve gotten a lot of awards and they all matter, but this award celebrates the total industry, and the diversity [of restaurants] in the industry.”

The winners in each menu category showcase that diversity. Here’s how they line up:

Best New Menu Item: Cava

Market Spice Bowl

Owen Klein, VP of Menu & Culinary Innovation 

Best Limited-Time Offer: Del Taco

Birria Ramen

Jeremias Aguayo, Sr. Director of Culinary Research & Development 

Best Menu/Line Extension: Fogo de Chao

Antonio Iocchi, Sr. Vice President of F&B Global Innovation

Crispy Pork Belly

Healthful Innovation: Tender Greens, One Table Restaurant Brands

Pete Ballistreri, VP of Culinary Innovations & Oliver Plust, Corporate Executive Chef

Blue Zone Bowl

Best Menu Revamp: McDonald’s

Reworking of Burger

Chad Schafer, Sr. Director of U.S. Menu Strategy

“We made 50 changes to the burger before its relaunch, including a softer bun,” said Schafer of the McDonald’s revamp. “The burger is seared and now caresses the meat and makes it better, and we’re proudly serving that burger across the country.”

birria wontons

The Birria Wontons were inspired by Del Taco's Birria Ramen.

Aguayo echoed what can be the extensive trial and error of the R&D process. “It took 16 iterations of consommé before we got it right. My mom’s recipe was the inspiration to bring Birria Ramen to Del Taco, and I won the award in her honor.”

Each of the chain chefs heaped praise on their teams for their part in earning the award. Cava’s Klein summed it up by saying “it was a cross-functional effort to get it [the Market Spice Bowl] across the line.”

Along with earning the prestigious awards, the five winners collaborated to create the menu of passed hors d’oeuvres and small plates served at the event. Some of the standouts were Stuffed Birria Wontons based on Del Taco’s ramen, Duck Fat Biscuits with Chile Whipped Honey & Berry Bourbon Preserves, and Lime Curd Cream Puff with Green Papaya Salad.

Innovator of the Year Irani was honored for raising the profile of Indian food in the U.S. and changing Americans’ perception of the cuisine. He operates three restaurants, founded the spice brand Spicewalla, and with his wife, Molly, started Brown in the South—a dinner series that explores the ties between India and the American South.

Nevertheless, Irani was humbled to be called an innovator. “The truly brave ones are those that jump in and join the innovators … the first employees, the first customers and the first investors,” he said upon accepting the award.

The MenuMasters ceremony was held at Morgan Manufacturing, an event space in Chicago’s West Loop, and hosted by Nation’s Restaurant News, an Informa media brand, in partnership with Ventura Foods.

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