If the James Beard Awards are the restaurant equivalent of the Oscars, then the chefs behind the stoves are the leading men and ladies that draw the crowds and dazzle diners. Rightfully so, as Chicago gears up to host the James Beard Awards in May, numerous local chefs have received top honors with venerable nominations.
The category dominated by Chicago is the Great Lakes category, where a vast majority of the nominations go to local talents. Actually, all but one are Chicagoans, each displaying a unique style of cookery in diverse settings.
There's Curtis Duffy, whom you may remember from the documentary "For Grace" about his restaurant (it's not every day a chef gets featured in a documentary, after all), whose gorgeous precision has enticed guests for a taste of his seasonal fine dining tasting menus in the West Loop. (Note: Grace is now closed.)
Paul Virant does double duty as executive chef at Perennial Virant in Lincoln Park and at Vie in Western Springs, Ill. It's his older spot, Vie, that earned him the accolade from the James Beard Foundation, for his masterful work with housemade preserves and pickles, and the multifaceted techniques in which he presents them on plates.
Erling Wu-Bower, the seasoned nominee captaining the menu at the Gold Coast's Nico Osteria, cooks up a destination-worthy interpretation of Italian cuisine by focusing on the Italian coasts. The resulting dishes are illustrious, bracingly fresh, and unlike anything else found in Italian restaurants in Chicago.
Then there's Andrew Zimmerman, chef of Sepia in the West Loop. Here, he commands a menu that runs the gamut of globally inspired contemporary American cuisine, from beet and leek soup with bruleed miso to arancini with turnips, truffles, celery root, and Grana Padano. Dishes are stunning and taste even better than they look.
Lastly, another chef deserving acclaim is Tanya Baker, the executive chef at River North's Boarding House. The young talent is representing Chicago in the Rising Star Chef of the Year category, and doing us proud.
Best of luck and congratulations to all!
Photos: Curtis Duffy and Andrew Zimmerman