Jun 11, 2024 - Food and Drink

What it's like to attend the James Beard Awards in Chicago

Me, Josh Brasted (my brother), Shaun Williams and Chris Hannah of Jewel of the South. Photo: Chelsea Brasted/Axios

Me, Josh Brasted (my brother), Shaun Williams and Chris Hannah of Jewel of the South. Photo: Chelsea Brasted/Axios

For one night every summer, some of the best chefs in the world swap their coats and clogs for formalwear, stepping onto the red carpet at the James Beard Awards to shine amongst the hospitality industry's best.

Why it matters: The James Beards are called the Oscars of the food world. With three New Orleans restaurants up for awards this year, it was a great time to visit Chicago, where the ceremony is held.

Catch up quick: Dakar NOLA, Saffron NOLA and Jewel of the South were each up for awards during the big Monday night awards ceremony at the Lyric Opera.

A person squeezes a dark brown sauce over a tray of formed tataki fillings.
The Nami Nori team preps tataki filling during a culinary event for the Asian American Foundation's Asian American Culinary Conference, which took place during the James Beard Award weekend in Chicago. Image: Chelsea Brasted/Axios

I'm no chef, but I was able to go to Chicago for this year's chef awards at the Lyric Opera, and I brought my brother along for the ride.

  • Before the big red carpet ceremony even began Monday night, the weekend was a blur of parties that had me crisscrossing Chicago as local and visiting chefs and bartenders showed out.
  • That means I got to eat my way across the city, from the Guinness Open Gate Brewery to the rooftop of Nobu, which opens in New Orleans later this summer.
  • There were also a handful of educational events with the James Beard Foundation and others hosting panel discussions and presentations to drive conversations around culture, wellness and sustainability.
A small bamboo plate has three pieces of sushi and a poke bowl sitting on it on a wooden tabletop with a pair of Nobu-branded chopsticks.
A stop at Nobu meant I got to sample some of the sushi New Orleans will soon get when its own location opens this summer. Photo: Chelsea Brasted/Axios

Dig in: And there was great food available the whole time.

  • Small bamboo plates that filled the palm of your hand were almost always circulating a room or stood ready at service stations around the events.
  • The three best bites I ate?
  • A beautiful little pistachio- and citrus-cream-filled choux pastry by Arshiya Farheen of Verzênay Chicago, a tuna poke temaki from Jihan Lee at Nami Nori in New York, and a smoked Nebraska paddlefish with crispy chicken skin and chives from Kane Adkisson of kano in Omaka, Nebraska.

Zoom in: By Monday night, it was showtime.

  • Chefs, bartenders and restaurateurs snapped photos down a red carpet before entering the gorgeous Lyric Opera.
  • Inside, the ceremony took about three hours, and just like at other awards shows, corners of the theater erupted in support as each winner was announced.
  • Even when I didn't know the winners, it was hard not to get caught up in the acceptance speeches. These were heartfelt, shaky and beautiful moments that can change a person's life.

One dry thing: The award ceremony is surprisingly alcohol-free.

  • But guests do get bottles of water and boxes of popcorn.
A selfie of four people smiling at the camera.
A selfie with, from left, Dakar NOLA chef Serigne Mbaye, Chelsea Brasted, Josh Brasted and Dakar NOLA managing director Effie Richardson. Photo: Chelsea Brasted/Axios

It's been a whirlwind for me, and I didn't even pull off half the appearances that Dakar NOLA chef Serigne Mbaye was asked to attend.

  • I ran into Mbaye and his Dakar NOLA co-proprietor Effie Richardson at one of the James Beard panels on Sunday, where Mbaye talked about the cultural impact of cooking.

What he said: "Culture is who you are, how you act, something you carry, something that defines you as a person," Mbaye during one of the James Beard panels.

  • "And I try to tell that story through food."

What's next: This year's ceremony might be over, but it starts all over again in the running for the 2025 James Beard Awards.


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