James Beard Awards Takeaway: Good Food is on the Move in the Culinary Community

by Bob Benenson, FamilyFarmed

The glamour of the annual James Beard Foundation Awards, held earlier this month in Chicago, has subsided. So it’s timely to assess what the event meant for the Good Food movement.

The bottom line is that the James Beard Awards were very good news for Good Food.

The national effort to change the way Americans eat for the better — in which FamilyFarmed, publisher of Good Food on Every Table, has been a major player for more than 15 years —was reflected in the medallions given to many of the top award winners.

Dan Barber with 2015 James Beard Award

Chef Dan Barber, seen here in New York City with his 2015 James Beard Award for Writing and Literature that he earned for his book The Third Plate, later was awarded with his team at New York’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns with the medallion for 2015 Restaurant of the Year. Photo: James Beard Foundation/Ken Goodman

Dan Barber, a leading culinary force in the Good Food movement, scored a big double achievement. At a ceremony held earlier in New York City, he received the Writing and Literature award for The Third Plate, his book that merged his experiences promoting organic and sustainable agriculture at New York’s Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture with his national and international interactions with producers and restaurateurs who share his philosophy. Then, in Chicago, his restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns, received the Outstanding Restaurant of the Year award.

A major portion of The Third Plate (subtitled Field Notes on the Future of Food) focuses on ancient and heirloom grains and vegetables, as exemplified by the pioneering work of farmers such as Klaas and Mary-Howell Martens of Lakeview Organic Grain in upstate New York and Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills in South Carolina. The book has helped fuel the rapidly growing interest in using highly quality grains and flour that has arisen among both restaurateurs and home cooks.

In our home area of Chicago, this trend is working to the benefit of grain producers such as Spence Farm, Hazzard Free Farm, and Lonesome Stone; Baker Miller, an ambitious baking and flour-milling start-up that focuses on sourcing locally produced and organic grains; and bakers such as Publican Quality Bread, which touts its use of flours from these and similar sources.

Donnie Madia with 2015 James Beard Award

Donnie Madia of Chicago’s One Off Hospitality restaurant group with his 2015 James Beard Award for Restaurateur of the Year. James Beard Foundation/Galdones Photography, LLC

• It so happens that the James Beard Award for the 2015 Outstanding Restaurateur of the Year award went to Chicago’s own Donnie Madia, the business partner to chef Paul Kahan in the One Off Hospitality Group — which includes Publican Quality Bread in its long lineup of foodservice operations.

Great food and drink are the calling cards at this local restaurant empire, which includes Blackbird, Avec, The Publican (and its spinoffs, Publican Quality Meats and Publican Quality Bread), Nico Osteria, Big Star, Dove’s Luncheonette, and The Violet Hour. But the menus at these restaurants also are built on Good Food principles. The relationships Kahan has built with local and regional producers — who get especially prominent mention on The Publican’s menu — have helped them build their businesses and, in turn, expand the local food cluster in the Chicago region.

Kahan served as co-chairman of the 25th annual James Beard Awards — the first held outside New York City — along with Rick Bayless, who is celebrated both for his regional Mexican cuisine and his work to boost local farmers, and Grant Achatz, whose flagship Alinea is frequently cited by critics as the nation’s best restaurant.

Rick Bayless with 2015 James Beard Awards

Prior to co-chairing the James Beard Foundation culinary awards ceremony in Chicago, chef Rick Bayless shared a 2015 James Beard media award in New York City with food journalist Steve Dolinsky for their podcast “The Feed.” Photo: James Beard Foundation/Ken Goodman

Like Dan Barber, the One Off Hospitality team was a double-winner at the James Beard Awards. The Violet Hour, a speakeasy-style bar that played a major role in spurring the “mixology” trend in Chicago, won the medallion for Outstanding Bar Program.

Michel Nischan at 2015 James Beard Awards

Michel Nischan of Wholesome Wave, winner of the 2015 James Beard Humanitarian of the Year award. Photo: James Beard Foundation/Galdones Photography, LLC

Michel Nischan received the Humanitarian of the Year award for his groundbreaking efforts to make the benefits of healthy local and sustainably produced food more available and accessible to those of limited financial means.

Nischan is a famed chef who ran the highly regarded Dressing Room restaurant in Westport, Connecticut (which he co-founded with actor Paul Newman) from 2006 to 2014. But his Humanitarian award stems largely from his work as co-founder, president, and CEO of Wholesome Wave.

This Connecticut-based nonprofit is best known for its Double Value Coupon Program, which works with a national network of nutrition incentive programs to enable low-income consumers to double the value of their federal nutrition benefits when they spend their food dollars on locally grown fruits and vegetables at farmers markets.

Wholesome Wave’s activities also include its Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program, which funds “prescriptions” for fruits and vegetables that families affected by diet-related illnesses can use at participating farmers markets and retail outlets.

The organization’s efforts to affect public policy achieved a signal success in the 2014 federal farm bill, which authorized $100 million in funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program. These programs provide individuals enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or “food stamps”) with a monetary incentive when they buy fruits and vegetables from participating retailers, including farmers markets.

Continue down the roll call of James Beard Awards winners and you’ll find numerous chefs and restaurants influenced by the principles of the Good Food movement. It is not like this should come as a surprise, though.

James Beard Awards 2015 reception

Attendees at the James Beard Awards event at Chicago’s Lyric Opera House on May 4 enjoyed a post-ceremony tasting event featuring food from some of the nation’s culinary stars. Photo: Bob Benenson

The National Restaurant Association annually conducts a poll of more than 1,000 chefs across the U.S. and produces a top 10 list of “what’s hot” for the upcoming year. And virtually every item in the What’s Hot in 2015 list released last December was related — in most cases very directly — to Good Food principles.

Dave Beran and Monica Eng at 2015 James Beard Awards

Dave Beran of Chicago’s Next restaurant — who won the 2014 James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Great Lakes region — was interviewed by Monica Eng of WBEZ public radio during the post-ceremony reception at the 2015 awards event in Chicago. Photo: Bob Benenson

In the fact, the number 1 item was “locally sourced meat and seafood,” followed directly by “locally grown produce,” and “environmental sustainability.” And it seems like hardly a day goes by when there is not some major development that underscores the mainstreaming of the movement.

Whether it is McDonald’s announcement that is converting, over a two-year period, to purchasing only chicken raised without antibiotics that are important to human health in order to address concerns about the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria; the blockbuster call by Walmart, by far the nation’s biggest grocery retailer, for its meat suppliers to cease inhumane treatment of livestock, including confinement; or Fortune magazine running a special report on “The War on Big Food,” it is clear that the biggest players in the food industry are being compelled by consumer demand to provide more healthy food that is produced sustainably, humanely, and fairly.

FamilyFarmed has played an proactive role to stimulate the Good Food movement throughout its history, and its influence was underscored by appearances by leading policymakers — including Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner and senior U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin — at the organization’s annual Good Food Festival & Conference this March.

We were happy to have had the opportunity to welcome the James Beard Awards to our hometown of Chicago. And with the ceremony scheduled here in both 2016 and 2017, we look forward to getting an up-close look at the spreading influence of Good Food on the nation’s culinary leadership.

James Beard Awards 2015 logo

The logo for the 25th annual James Beard Awards ceremony at Chicago’s Lyric Opera House. Photo: Bob Benenson



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