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Chicago's Semifinalists for the 'Oscars of Food'

Daniel Hautzinger
Mona Sang at her restaurant Khmai Fine Dining
Mona Sang at her restaurant Khmai Fine Dining, which is a James Beard Award semifinalist for best new restaurant. Photo: Kathleen Hinkel/WTTW

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The semifinalists for the James Beard Awards, one of the food industry's biggest recognitions in America, have been announced. Chicago has eleven nominees amongst them, four fewer than last year. Only one Chicago finalist, Erick Williams of Virtue, won last year. Interestingly, only four of the semifinalists from last year were nominated again this year, only two of them in the same category.

Here are Chicago's semifinalists. Finalists will be revealed on March 29, while the awards themselves will be presented in a ceremony at the Lyric Opera of Chicago on June 5.

Outstanding Restaurant

Smyth - Karen and John B. Shields were nominated for Best Chef: Great Lakes in last year's James Beard Awards, and have moved on to a national category this year. Smyth won Restaurant of the Year at Chicago's homegrown Jean Banchet Awards in 2020, and is one of four restaurants in Chicago with two Michelin stars.

Emerging Chef

Damarr Brown, Virtue - Damarr Brown could add another James Beard Award to Virtue in Hyde Park, which is run by Erick Williams, who won Best Chef: Great Lakes last year. Brown is Williams' chef de cuisine at Virtue, but also gained fame as a near-winner of Top Chef last year. He shared his story and a recipe for jambalaya with us. 

Best New Restaurant

Khmai Fine Dining - This restaurant in Rogers Park is one of only two Cambodian restaurants in Chicago, and grew out of Mona Sang's culinary training at Lettuce Entertain You and her mom's recipes, one of which Sang shared with us. Cooking and food gave Sang's mother "a new life" after she fled Cambodia during the genocide and then raised a family as a single mother in Chicago, Sang told us

Obélix - This French-ish restaurant from the family behind the Bucktown favorite Le Bouchon seems to have won over everyone with its inventive dishes such as a foie gras taco, and has been on seemingly every best new restaurant list in Chicago. 

Outstanding Hospitality

Sepia - Sepia has been a perennial contender for James Beard Awards in several categories. The Michelin-starred West Loop restaurant has garnered nods for everything from Outstanding Service to Outstanding Wine to Best Chef: Great Lakes for current chef Andrew Zimmerman, although it hasn't been on the list since 2018. Perhaps this is its year to finally win one, beyond a 2008 win in the now-defunct category Outstanding Restaurant Graphics. 

Outstanding Wine and Other Beverages Program

All Together Now - This West Loop wine bar/shop/cheese spot/casual cafe focuses on unusual natural wines, and is a first-time (and comparatively low-key) nominee.

Best Chef: Great Lakes

Diana Dávila Boldin, Mi Tocaya Antojería - Dávila Boldin has been nominated for Best Chef: Great Lakes numerous times, including last year. Her Logan Square Mexican restaurant has been a local and national favorite for several years now, and was featured in PBS's No Passport Required show with Marcus Samuelsson. She has also engaged in charitable work, running a free meal program called Todos Ponen ("Everyone contributes") during the pandemic. You can try her recipes for enchiladas potosinas, guacamole, and ensalada.

Thai Dang, HaiSous - Dang and his Pilsen Vietnamese restaurant HaiSous have been nominated or semifinalists several times.

Paul Fehribach, Big Jones - Fehribach has been in the running for Best Chef: Great Lakes seven times, so the chef of Andersonville's heritage Southern restaurant probably doesn't have his hopes up. But this could finally be his year.

Tim Flores and Genie Kwon, Kasama - This Filipino restaurant and bakery has received tons of acclaim since opening in West Town, including a nod on The New York Times' 2021 Restaurant List, a Michelin star, and a chance at Best New Restaurant in the James Beard Awards. Genie Kwon's pastries and her husband Tim Flores' dishes have drawn people to their breakfasts and a tasting menu that explores classic Filipino dishes.

Zubair Mohajir, Wazwan - One part of this South Asian restaurant features casual dishes like a tandoori honey chicken sandwich and Tibetan dumplings, while the coach house in back offers an inventive tasting menu in an intimate space.