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Chicago's James Beard Award Semifinalists

Daniel Hautzinger
Monteverde's Sarah Grueneberg, seen her with her 2017 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Great Lakes, is up for Outstanding Chef
Monteverde's Sarah Grueneberg, seen her with her 2017 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Great Lakes, is up for Outstanding Chef

Update: The James Beard Awards Gala and the finalist annoucements have been postponed due to coronavirus concerns. The James Beard Foundation is instead focusing its attention on a Food and Beverage Industry Relief Fund it has set up to help restaurants and food industry employees during the pandemic. The finalist announcements will now take place via live stream on Twitter (@beardfoundation) on Monday, May 4, the original planned date for the Awards gala.

The semifinalists for the James Beard Awards, the Oscars of the food industry, have been announced, and, as usual, Chicago is well-represented on the list, with fourteen chefs and five restaurants nominated. Finalists will be announced March 25, while winners will be announced at the Awards Gala at the Lyric Opera of Chicago on May 4. 

Find all the Chicago semifinalists here, as well as times they have been featured by WTTW.

Best New Restaurant 

Thattu – Thattu is a restaurant in the diverse food hall Politan Row that spotlights Keralite cuisine from southwestern India. It's new, so we haven't had a chance to feature it yet!

Tzuco – Tzuco is one of three new restaurants from renowned chef Carlos Gaytán. Gaytán was the first Mexican chef to win a Michelin star, for his Chicago restaurant Mexique, which closed a few years ago. (It was on Check, Please! in 2017). He returned to Chicago last year with Tzuco, which is inspired by his hometown of Huitzuco. While he's a talented chef, he's also an avid scuba diver, as WTTW found out in our digital series Chefs off the Clock.

Outstanding Bar Program

Lost Lake – Logan Square's tiki bar Lost Lake has already received its fair share of acclaim, and it was a finalist for Outstanding Bar Program last year, too. Last fall, guests from Check, Please! visited – see what they thought.

Outstanding Chef

Sarah Grueneberg, Monteverde – Sarah Grueneberg already has a James Beard Award: she won Best Chef: Great Lakes in 2017. Now she's up for a bigger prize. She hosted a miniseries for WTTW called Dishalicious where she joined chefs like Rick Bayless, her old boss from Spiaggia Tony Mantuano, and Beverly Kim of Parachute and Wherewithall. Together, she and the other chefs cooked up delicious meals, spotlighting Mexican, Italian, and Korean cuisines – watch the show and try some of their recipes. Monteverde was also recently reviewed on Check, Please!

Outstanding Pastry Chef

Emily Spurlin, Lula Cafe – Lula is a Logan Square stalwart that Check, Please! featured way back in 2005.

Outstanding Restaurant

Boka – Boka is a perennial favorite of the Beard Awards, although this is the first time the restaurant has been up for Outstanding Restaurant. Last year, the Boka Restaurant Group's Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz won Outstanding Restaurateur, while pastry chef Meg Galus and chef Lee Wolen have been nominated for awards before (Wolen is once again a semifinalist this year, for Best Chef: Great Lakes). 

Outstanding Wine Program

Spiaggia – Spiaggia, the standout Italian restaurant whose founding chef Tony Mantuano left the restaurant this year, was also nominated last year for Outstanding Wine Program. Yes, it was on Check, Please! – in 2002. 

Rising Star Chef of the Year

Alisha Elenz, mfk./Bar Biscay – Elenz became the executive chef at MFK at the ripe young age of 23, and was a finalist for this same Award last year. She's so young, she could qualify as a "rising star" for several years to come!

Jeanine Lamadieu, Yūgen  Yūgen is a new restaurant that took over the space occupied by the three Michelin-starred Grace. Its chef Mari Katsumura worked at Grace, while her colleague Lamadieu came from fellow Beard nominee Smyth. 

Best Chef: Great Lakes

Thai Dang, HaiSous – Dang's HaiSous, in Pilsen, focuses on the Vietnamese food he grew up eating. 

Brian Jupiter, Frontier – Jupiter is a chef who specializes in using every part of the animal. He spoke about that kind of whole-hog cooking on Chat, Please!

Gene Kato, Momotaro – Momotaro is another restaurant from the Boka Restaurant Group. As always, they are well-represented in the Beard Awards. 

Jason Hammel, Lula Cafe – Hammel was a first-time nominee last year but is a long-time Chicago favorite. He discussed the food education nonprofit, Pilot Light, that he co-founded on Chat, Please!, and Lula Café was reviewed on Check, Please! in 2005.

Ethan Pikas, Cellar Door Provisions – Cellar Door Provisions is just down the street from Lost Lake in Logan Square. It's well-loved for its morning pastries and dishes, in particular quiche, but it also serves seasonal dinners in the evening. See it on Check, Please!, from 2017.

Noah Sandoval, Oriole – Sandoval has been nominated before. His Oriole is one of only three restaurants with two Michelin stars in Chicago.

John Shields and Karen Urie Shields, Smyth – Smyth won Restaurant of the Year at Chicago's homegrown Jean Banchet Awards earlier this year, so 2020 could be a banner year for the two Michelin-starred restaurant.

Mariya Russell, Kikkō – Kikkō has already garnered a Michelin star and lots of rave reviews for its Japanese-inspired cocktails and food. 

Erick Williams, Virtue – Chef Erick Williams's reputation blew up last year, with his Hyde Park restaurant Virtue named a best new restaurant by both Eater and Esquire. Williams himself was named one of "16 Black Chefs Changing Food in America" by the New York Times. WTTW met with him late last summer and heard about his commitment to training young chefs of color. Virtue was recently featured on Check, Please! too.

Lee Wolen, Boka – Wolen has been up for this Award numerous times before. Maybe this is finally his year.