For those in Chicago’s restaurant scene, the Jean Banchet Awards, recognizing excellence in the local food and beverage industry, symbolize a bittersweet homecoming for restaurateurs, after COVID-19 hurled their business model into chaos and thrust their workers to the frontlines of a pandemic.
How the awards came about and their impact on the city’s culinary scene remains a mystery, even for industry insiders. The annual benefit for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation marked its 20th anniversary this year. In its original format, a gala was held alongside the awards, which were presented at a dinner. At one point during the 2015 event, Banchet Awards host Mike Muser (then the general manager and sommelier at three-Michelin-starred Grace) had to scream over the massive roar of the 600-person dinner in order to announce the honorees. The next year, the foundation made the decision to spin off the awards into a separate event. This year’s awards were held on Sunday, May 1, and Muser and Sarah Evans, associate executive director of the Illinois chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, wanted to dispense with the crowded dinner without sacrificing regional charm.
“There was a level of seriousness we were not going to allow,” says Muser, who along with chef Curtis Duffy opened Ever in Fulton Market in 2020. “We’ve got to keep this fun. This is not the Beard Awards. We’re not on a national level… we’re Chicagoans. We keep it real.”
Muser brought his own theatrical flair as host to past shows, along with a troupe of Chicago servers who had satirized their workplace through the YouTube series The Restaurant. Muser says they’d utilize “black box theater-level skits” using Chicago lore. For example, Mrs. O’Leary, the legendary owner of the cow that allegedly burned the city down, has made an appearance.
Those servers didn’t perform at this year’s awards, a stark reminder of the workers who left the industry after 2020. Beyond a trimmer award show with fewer jokes, organizers braced for a shift in mood due to COVID-19’s impact.
“This year, it’s going to be quite extraordinary because we have not seen each other in so long… and so there’ll be so much happiness and energy in the room,” says Ina Pinkney, the legendary former owner of the West Loop breakfast spot Ina’s. “It really is about, ‘How did you make it? How did you get through this?’”
The two-year pause gave panelists and organizers a chance to reflect on their values, diversity, and representation. The Banchet website states that the public is invited to propose nominations between February 7 and 20, which are tallied and narrowed by the voting panel. There are no detailed eligibility requirements per category, and the site only states under its criteria that winners from the previous three years may not appear as candidates in the same category. The winners are chosen through a combination of a panel vote and an online vote cast in late March by those currently working in or affiliated with a Chicago-area restaurant.
“Originally when the awards started, it was all just open voting and so we would put a ballot out to the entire city of Chicago,” Evans says. “Then we realized it was just like a popularity contest.”
That changed in 2016. Today, the Banchets conduct a two-week open voting period and the top four from each category in that initial vote are revealed during a panelist meeting. The panel then compiles a list of suggested nominees made by each member in each category, Evans says. That list takes the public’s nominations into consideration. The panel then decides on the final four nominees.
“For the winners, we now do an electronic ballot and for two weeks, members of the restaurant industry are able to cast their votes for the winners,” Evans writes via email. “We then bring those results to the panel and they all discuss, then ultimately select the winners in each category.”
Panelists are not required to sign a code of ethics, though they still confirm that they’re not directly affiliated with any restaurant and confirm that they have dined at the nominated venues. If there is a vote that includes a restaurant where a panelist has not dined, the panelist recuses themselves. The number of panelists fluctuates annually between six and 10 (there are six this year). The Banchets also keep their panelists secret.
“We feel that if they were made public then it would lend itself more to those individuals receiving special treatment when they dined out,” Evans writes in an email.
Though the Banchets, which focus on Chicago, as Muser says, aren’t the Beards, they both take place in Chicago. “The Oscars of the food world” are hard to ignore with the awards sharing many of the same nominees. COVID also canceled both awards for the last two years. In that time, the Beards conducted an audit in August 2020 that examined the voting body’s composition and focused on a code of ethics, part of the effort to “remove systemic bias” and expand the nomination process to more candidates.
“We’ve done a ton of work on opening up the process to new voices and making sure that it’s not just the same group of people voting every year and that smaller, independent operations are getting a shot,” says Chicago-based writer Chandra Ram.
Ram, the associate editorial director for Food & Wine, also serves on the 2022 journalism committee for the James Beard Foundation’s awards. Prior to 2020, committee members spent hundreds of hours working on changing the perception of the Beards as a fine dining awards ceremony, and making the nomination process more transparent, she says.
The Beard Foundation lists detailed eligibility criteria for each category on its website. The foundation also established a code of ethics that the voting body, entrants, nominees, and winners must follow.
According to its website, the Banchet panel “consists of Chicago’s foremost food and beverage journalists, photographers, and elite gastronomes. The panel gathers throughout the year to discuss, compare, and contrast experiences at a variety of culinary establishments.”
“We want mysterious,” says Mike Gebert, the writer behind the website Fooditor, who has contributed to the show’s scripts, but has not served as a panelist. Gebert claims even with his involvement in the Banchets, he doesn’t know the identity of the panelists. “I was saying we should claim that they’re chosen by Franciscan monks who have taken a vow of silence. So that’s my story, and I’m sticking with it.”
Joe Campagna, the blogger formerly known as Chicago Food Snob, is a silent partner in a few Chicago restaurants, and sat on the judging panel for two years. He described the voting body as a mix of food writers and ardent diners. The volunteer committee was diverse in age, sex, and ethnicity when he served on it, he says.
“There’s three or four food writers and then there were like two or three industry insiders who ate out and knew the chefs by first name,” he says. “These guys were out there four or five nights a week, eating everywhere, as much as any reviewer and food person was… and it was all their own money. So it wasn’t like anybody was getting paid. We were all doing this on our own.”
Over the years, the categories have morphed. The best design category has gone away, and the inclusion of the sommelier category came up for debate this year as well, but ultimately remained. The “alternative dining” category, which first appeared in 2017, is perhaps the most enigmatic on the list, with food halls, trucks, pop-ups, and ghost kitchens included. In 2019, panelists changed the “ethnic” category to “heritage,” to avoid othering non-Eurocentric cuisines.
“You don’t have to be Alinea,” Gebert says. “You don’t have to be a $5 million buildout to get some love from the Banchets. It’s the imaginative little places that maybe only do a few things, but do them really well.”
Even with those changes, there are notable categories this year where all the nominees are male. Chef of the Year boasts an all-male roster, with the exception of a dual nomination for Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark at Wherewithall and Parachute. The best sommelier category is now all-male after the awards rescinded the nomination for Jelena Prodan, sommelier and general manager at S.K.Y.
A broader look at the award winners over the years paints a more even picture of representation, at least by gender. When the tally includes male-female duos, women have won a majority of the awards each year since 2016, with the exception of 2018.
The changes are supposed to better reflect the city’s current dining scene.
Campagna says he hasn’t looked at this year’s categories, but expressed criticism of the recent changes.
“Think about this, if you’re a white guy cooking these days, what award can you win?” he says. “The pendulum swings both ways all the time. Before you looked at everything and it was always 10 white dudes and maybe some of them were from Europe. But now we’ve gotten to a point where the diversity of the people matters more than the quality of the food.”
Yet others in Chicago counter that white chefs are not at a disadvantage just because more diverse chefs are receiving accolades.
“The idea that it’s a bad time to be a white chef, that’s so repulsive to me I don’t even want to address it,” says Phil Vettel, the former longtime dining critic for the Chicago Tribune, who retired in 2021.
Vettel also served for 11 years on the committee for the Beard Awards: “If the pendulum has swung ever so slightly in favor of seeking out, developing more diversity in the sort of restaurants we cover and the sort of talent we recognize, I don’t think anyone who’s part of the old guard has any grounds for complaint at all,” he adds.
Jennifer Kim, the owner of Passerotto, the Korean Italian restaurant that closed in Andersonville in 2020, was the co-winner of the 2017 Rising Chef of the Year award for her work at the cured fish-focused cafe Snaggletooth. Kim, who recently took a job teaching with Kendall College, does not believe that it’s difficult to find deserving chefs of color to nominate for awards in Chicago. Kim has been known to cause some commotion at the Banchets herself. At the 2019 awards, she wore a jacket spray-painted in protest after 42 Grams chef and co-owner Jake Bickelhaupt — who had won the 2015 Banchet Rising Chef of the Year award — pled guilty to battery after attacking his ex-wife, who also co-owned the restaurant. Kim wore the jacket to protest the silence among Chicago’s chef community in regard to the attack. She says she didn’t feel any backlash from her activism at the awards — Passerotto won the following year for Best Neighborhood Restaurant.
“Again, it kind of comes to a little bit of that elitism within our entire industry of just being like, what’s considered a chef, right?” Kim says. “Because yeah, some of them might not have traditional training. Some of them may have never worked in a Michelin-star restaurant. But why does that negate them from being able to participate in anything?”
For those who have won or received nominations from the Banchets, it’s often difficult to quantify the monetary impact or the buzz that the awards can generate. After Thattu’s nomination in 2020, chef and co-owner Margaret Pak says recognition and business flooded her South Indian stall at Politan Row food hall in the West Loop. Still, the awards do not always garner the attention among average diners that, for example, a Michelin star would. For Kim, her Beard nomination increased foot traffic and helped her restaurant’s bottom line. The currency for the Banchets is better measured by the social cache the awards give chefs, she believes.
“More than anything, the one thing that I see is it gives you social clout,” Kim says. “So people might be like, ‘I’ve never heard of your restaurant,’ but the minute that you’re like, ‘I won two Banchets and I was nominated for a Beard,’ suddenly it gives you this validity.”