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While the eyes of fashion devotees were focused on New York City’s Met Gala on Monday night, the gaze of the food world was fixed on Chicago’s James Beard Awards, seen as the equivalent of the Oscars in the food world.
A weekend of party hopping, cavorting and camaraderie by the top players in the culinary industry was capped off by a spectacle hosted by Emmy-nominated actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson, held at the stunning Art Deco Lyric Opera of Chicago and attended by more than 2,000 guests including Andrew Zimmern, Tyra Banks and Ayesha Curry.
Ferguson, who is a gourmand and author of a food blog with recipes developed by Julie Tanous called Julie & Jesse, says that his association with the awards, which also included hosting honors in 2017, is a natural fit.
“I’ve certainly made it no secret that I’m a fan of the culinary world,” Ferguson told The Hollywood Reporter. “I’m pretty active in my kitchen, and I share a lot of that on my social media platforms. It is the perfect marriage of someone who can be entertaining and can be funny and can be lighthearted but also definitely has great respect for chefs and everything that they do.”
During the almost four-hour-long spectacle, the West Coast was celebrated with a trail of winners from southern to northern California. Garden Grove’s Pho 79 received an America’s Classics honor, while best chef in the West went to Melrose Avenue staple Providence and the man at its helm, Michael Cimarusti. This was his first win after nine nominations and the only one for the Los Angeles food scene. San Francisco’s El Pípila took home a design award and Bar Agricole, also in the city, won the award for outstanding bar program, while Benu won for outstanding wine program. It is not uncommon for restaurants to be nominated for many years before ever winning.
Other top awards included best new restaurant (New York City’s Frenchette); outstanding chef (LGBTQ advocate Ashley Christensen of Raleigh NC’s Poole’s Diner); outstanding restaurant (Philadelphia’s Zahav); best chef: New York City (Via Carota’s Jody Williams and Rita Sodi); and outstanding restaurateur (Boka Restaurant Group’s Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz, famous for Chicago’s Girl & the Goat empire).
But it’s the rising star chef of the year award (captured by Kwame Onwuachi of Washington, D.C.’s Kith and Kin) for which the host has a soft spot.
“I love honoring the up-and-comers and the new people,” Ferguson said. “I think it’s really important to praise the people who are reinventing, and are the fresh blood in the industry.”
Adding to the Hollywood glamour of the night, actress Zooey Deschanel presented the best chef Southwest and New York City awards. The theme of this year’s event was “Good Food for Good.” After the awards, chefs from around the country (including past James Beard Award winners and many who are involved in the Foundation’s impact-oriented initiatives such as Smart Catch, Women’s Leadership Programs and Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change) fed the attendees. During the awards, VIP guests were treated to a multi-course dinner on the mezzanine prepared by chefs from Union Square Hospitality Group.
Those who were not able to attend the awards can still wear the memory of it all, thanks to a special $25 limited-edition bow tie that Ferguson, along with husband Justin Mikita, created for the event through their company Tie the Knot, which sells neckwear and other accessories with proceeds going to advocacy for LGBTQ rights.
“People are excited that there was some sort of official merchandise for the James Beard Awards and we continue to sell them on our website throughout the year. [The pattern is] very kitchen-specific. It’s a fun, quirky thing to have,” he said. “We’re using that money to create a scholarship for LGBTQ people in the culinary world.”
Other projects including a cookbook with Tanous could also be in the works, Ferguson teased, and he recently filmed an episode of Beat Bobby Flay alongside chef Carla Hall — all this between cooking and eating from coast to coast.
“It was never meant to be anything more than what it is — a food blog. A lot of people were asking for the recipes that me and Julie were creating at home and posting to Instagram,” Ferguson said. “There’s been a lot of interest in maybe doing something further with it, whether that is cookbook, or maybe a cooking-type show, we’re not sure — we’re still weighing our options.”
Ferguson noted that he is a big fan of Los Angeles’ Majordomo, which did not win for best new restaurant. And, in New York City, he has been hitting the East Coast outpost of Chicago classic Au Cheval as well as 4 Charles Prime Rib, both for hamburgers.
“David Chang has created some really special dishes at that restaurant,” Ferguson said. “I hope that people can see I have a great joy of creating food in the kitchen. And these James Beard award-winning chefs inspire me to up my game in the kitchen.”
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