Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Mary Bilyeu

Deja vu all over again at Beard Awards

At the risk of being called a kvetch, I’m going to be cranky two weeks in a row in this space.

Last week, I complained about the latest edition of Jane and Michael Stern’s Road Food travelers’ guide ignoring virtually all of northwest Ohio.

Today, I’m rehashing a year-old grudge after watching Wednesday’s live announcement of the 2017 nominees for the James Beard Awards, considered the Oscars of the food world. Cookbooks, television shows, restaurants, and chefs are all lauded — some chefs and cities more than others.

Frankly, I could save myself some time and just re-run my column from March 22, 2016, “Chicago is apple of Beard Awards’ eye.” I would only need to change a few names, because the scenario I wrote about is being replayed again.

Last year, no chefs from Ohio, Indiana, or Michigan were on the list of finalists in the Great Lakes division. Only chefs from Illinois — specifically from Chicago — made the final cut.

And once again, in 2017, from a list of 20 semi-finalists representing Cincinnati; Indianapolis; Fort Wayne, Ind.; Detroit and its suburbs, and, yes, Chicago, all five final nominees for Best Chef: Great Lakes are from the Windy City. Three of them — Abraham Conlon of Fat Rice, Lee Wolen of Boka (a Cleveland native), and Erling Wu-Bower of Nico Osteria — were among last year’s five finalists, too.

As I said wrote last year, everyone knows Chicago is a fabulous food town, but “in assessing the four eligible states — not just cities, but entire states — in the Great Lakes region, which is filled with amazing talent and delicious food, the Beard Awards nominating committee focused solely on Chicago in selecting its final five.”

Two years in a row now.

After seeing the Chicago-centrism last year, I had expected broader representation in the Great Lakes division this time. But since the primary awards ceremony is hosted in that city, perhaps it was naive to expect the romance to fizzle.

I noted then that the Beard Awards “have a category specifically for Best Chef: New York City; given the glut of restaurants there, they would overwhelm the Northeast Division otherwise.” Perhaps it’s time to give Chicago its own category, too.

Last year, I wrote: “As someone who has eaten her way through Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio, I am deeply disappointed to see only one city being honored in the Great Lakes category this year.” Who knew the same words would still hold true 12 months later?

I’d had particularly high hopes for semi-finalist James Rigato, chef and owner of Mabel Gray in Hazel Park, Mich., which was named 2017 Restaurant of the Year by the Detroit Free Press. I’ve been following his career for five years since sampling his Bacon-Crusted Caramel Apples at one event in 2012 and Crispy Braised Michigan Pork Belly with Roasted Butternut Squash Purée at another later that year. In both cases, Mr. Rigato’s stand-out dishes were my favorites among dozens of offerings.

So I’m practically begging the Beard Awards nominating committee, on behalf of all the amazingly talented chefs who are being ignored: Please don’t make me write this same column again next year.

Because just as I wrote last March: “[To] look at the list of final nominees, one might think Chicago was the only worthwhile city for dining in this region. And that is deeply, unfairly wrong.”

Contact Mary Bilyeu at
 or 419-724-6155 or on Twitter @BladeFoodPage.

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