While last year’s James Beard Awards gala was interrupted by a tornado warning that shook press room windows, the 2023 event’s encounter with climate change was less visible: Canadian forest fire smoke had drifted into the Windy City, creating hazy skies and sparking air quality alerts. Despite the moderate-to-unhealthy smog, the red carpet was held outside the Lyric Opera of Chicago, with the spectacle drawing confused interest from passers-by with cellphone cameras in hand.
More subtle, too, was the still-present specter of COVID-19: indoors, attendees were not asked to present proof of vaccination as they were last year. In lieu of face coverings, the primary sartorial statement of the night was bolo ties, worn by a whopping eight participants from disparate parts of the U.S., bearing leather cords and various symbols.
These included Chicago chef Diana Dávila of Mi Tocaya Antojería, a 2023 finalist for best chef: Great Lakes, who loaned a carved obsidian mask bolo tie to her colleague Itzel Hernandez as a good luck charm and symbol of Mayan heritage at the gala, earning oohs and aahs from onlookers. Beau Schooler, a 2023 finalist for the best chef: Northwest and Pacific for his work at In Bocca Al Lupo in Juneau, Alaska, commercial fishes sockeye salmon and has been donating salmon skin to his friend, artist Erika Tripp, who makes crafts out of them. He walked the red carpet in one of his catches transformed into a bolo tie. Sean Sherman, the 2022 winner of best chef: Midwest, wore a gorgeous beaded bolo made by a Minnesota Dakota artist.
When David Kirkland of Burnt Bean Co., a finalist for the best chef: Texas award saw co-owner and fellow finalist Ernest Servantes don mariachi pants, Kirkland says he knew he had to match Servantes’ traditional Texan clothing with a stylized black bolo tie of his own. Other bolos were spotted outside the red carpet on restaurant staff, primarily around the necks of team members from best new restaurant finalist Neng Jr.’s in Asheville, North Carolina, and several worn by the staff of Boise restaurant KIN, whose chef Kris Komori won the medal for best chef: Mountain and brought home Idaho’s first Beard award.
Cohesive fashion sensibility aside, the other big splash of the night began at the after-party at Union Station, where sommelier and past James Beard winner Belinda Chang constructed a 10-foot Champagne tower. Standing on her kitchen ladder, and sometimes pouring two bottles at once, Chang, a sommelier and consultant, emptied 121 bottles of Moët Imperial Brut into 285 Libbey glasses. After finishing the tower, Chang admitted that it was in a bit of a danger zone — she usually uses another glass type for stability, and was pouring while wearing complex wine-themed 3D nail accessories. The tower was a success and heavily photographed, with filled-to-the-brim glasses distributed to guests.
Among those toasting and tossing back glasses of bubbly were numerous Top Chef contestants and judges, including event presenters Gail Simmons and Eric Adjepong, as well as 2023 Beard winners Damarr Brown (rising star chef) and Gregory Gourdet (best new restaurant). The talk of the town, however, was an absent colleague: Padma Lakshmi, who announced that she will pack her knives and leave Top Chef on Friday, June 3 in an Instagram post.
“She’s my close friend and colleague of 17 years, and when your office mate of 17 years leaves, it’s bittersweet. But we had a pretty amazing run,” Simmons told Eater on the red carpet. “She’s not disappearing off the face of the earth.” Simmons declined to comment on who might take over Lakshmi’s position on the show or if future seasons will feature a three-judge panel.
The conversation also turned, naturally, toward Chicago dining. Gala presenter, celebrity chef, and media personality Andrew Zimmern said he loves what Smyth (a Beards nominee and finalist many times over) in West Loop has been doing with seaweed recently, and the Amano team from Caldwell, Indiana, had a great time at Dove’s Luncheonette and Best Intentions. Best chef: Great Lakes finalist Omar Anani of Saffron De Twah in Detroit mentioned longtime neighborhood staple Lula Cafe, though Sepia’s Andrew Zimmerman (a finalist for outstanding hospitality) noted chefs in his circle don’t have the energy to visit new restaurants and often end up defaulting to the classics like Lula. “That’s a recommendation from 10 years ago, my friend,” Zimmerman said. “It’s still great, don’t get me wrong. The unfortunate thing is that I don’t actually get out that much.”
For locals like Kasama’s Tim Flores, a 2023 best chef: Great Lakes co-winner with wife and partner Genie Kwon, the gala is an opportunity to host and feed a whole new group of diners. “That’s the greatest part,” Flores says. “We’re so lucky to be able to cook for people from across the country, and all the chefs and restaurateurs.”
Leaving an after-afterparty, some James Beard guests howled out thanks to what they thought was a strawberry moon — which in actuality came and went that Saturday – but was really a smoke-clouded celestial body. In the midst of all that excitement, however, Flores says his mind was already back home with the couple’s new bull terrier puppy, aptly named Longanisa. “It’s funny, all I’m thinking about is asking my friend ‘How’s Longanisa doing?’”
Disclosure: Some Vox Media staff members are part of the voting body for the James Beard Awards. Eater is partnering with the James Beard Foundation to livestream the awards in 2023. All editorial content, including this post, is produced independently of the James Beard Foundation.