James Beard Awards 2022: A Celebration of Global Gastronomy and Sustainability

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In the heart of the Windy City, the 2022 James Beard Awards – often dubbed the ‘Oscars’ of the culinary world – came to a shimmering conclusion on Monday night. After a turbulent stretch characterized by the global pandemic, the event resurfaced this year to honor those making waves in the gastronomic field, offering a delectable array of victors who represented an impressive array of cuisines from all corners of the world.

An eclectic mosaic of over 100 establishments, across a spread of 22 categories, were finalists. This diverse palette of eateries and varied chef experiences emphasized a significant shift for the once-troubled James Beard Foundation. Such a nomination alone could transform a local eatery into a nationally recognized hotspot overnight. The most eagerly anticipated awards of the evening were those for outstanding restaurateur, chef, and restaurant.

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The title of outstanding chef was bestowed upon Michael Rafidi. Rafidi’s Washington, D.C., establishment “Albi,” which translates as “my heart,” had already been granted a glittering endorsement in the form of a Michelin Star earlier this year. Albi lays out a dining experience steeped in traditional Palestinian cooking techniques, with dishes such as grape leaves stuffed with succulent lamb and sfeeha (a tender meat pie), created entirely over a charcoal layout, honoring Rafidi’s roots.

Humbly accepting the honor, Rafidi, adorned in a traditional black and white checkered keffiyeh, dedicated his accolade to his homeland and the people of Palestine. He also fondly mentioned his grandfather, a chef, who had paved his own journey in the culinary world.

Competitors for the prestigious awards are required to submit applications, which are then meticulously reviewed by a stealth cohort of judges who remain largely anonymous. Each nominee’s gastronomical offerings, along with their adherence to a behavioral code of ethics – significantly, the treatment of their staff – are carefully examined. This year, the winners, announced against the resplendent backdrop of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, were presented with elegantly engraved medallions.

Dakar NOLA, an enchanting Senegalese eatery located in the heart of New Orleans, scooped up the award for the best new restaurant. Its owner, chef Serigne Mbaye, spoke passionately about the unique contribution of West African cuisine to the global culinary discourse.

The James Beard Foundation, which has been an institution since 1991, suspended the awards in 2020 and 2021 due to the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was also grappling with criticisms about racial diversity and the behavior of certain nominees. This hiatus was used to introspect and heighten ethical standards, with a pledge to echo the evolving dynamics of the industry more genuinely.

Langbaan, a swanky Thai establishment situated in Oregon, which cleverly incorporates Pacific Northwest ingredients into its menu, was crowned as the outstanding restaurant of the year. Meanwhile, Lula Cafe, a North Side Chicago bistro that has been a community cornerstone since 1999, snapped up the award for outstanding hospitality.

Erika and Kelly Whitaker, a dynamic Colorado-based couple, were named outstanding restaurateurs. They operate several restaurants through their Id Est Hospitality Group, including The Wolf’s Tailor, which innovatively features smoked venison and is committed to zero waste and sustainability practices.

Kelly Whitaker expressed a disinterest in simply chasing awards. Instead, he emphasized more on utilizing the platform to advocate for their sustainability-focused cause and reinforce their commitment to culinary innovation.