With shock and deep sadness I write with the news of the passing of my friend Josh Ozersky yesterday in Chicago, where he had planned on attending the 2015 James Beard Awards. He was the editor at large at Esquire, a fried-chicken and hamburger historian, meat-festival ringleader and the man who inspires bloggers to type headlines like Josh Ozersky Dares to Question Rene Redzepi’s Claim to Fame. “The way that people feel about Game of Thrones, or the Dune books or Firefly — the way people feel about Alan Moore or George R. R. Martin — I feel that intensely and that ardently about the important figures in the chef world,” he told me in a story published last fall synced with his first, and only, Food & Drink issue at the magazine. The issue, though not his meatiest work, like a book about the history of the hamburger or a dark Gastronomica essay about designing a restaurant for fat people, was a testament to Josh’s uncompromising viewpoints about that state of food. Celebrate the little guy, channel diversity, shamelessly shout out a few chef friends. Lots of meat. No tweezers.
“People call me contrarian or a troll or whatever, and I will admit that I tend to have polarizing opinions," he said. “But I don’t believe that anywhere in my career, in any place, whether in my essays or in the journals that I’ve done, have I ever said something just because it would get attention.” It’s so true. Josh spoke, but mostly wrote and wrote and wrote. And we all read. We couldn’t not.
Segueing to the James Beard Awards, held for the first time in Chicago — a city that lobbied hard for the host position and delivered big in presenting the out-of-town chefs and journalists gathered with a stacked deck of events, parties and a gala that felt more relaxed (dare we say fun?) than previous iterations in New York City.
“It’s phenomenal to just have the awards outside of New York, but particularly in the Midwest,” says Cleveland chef Jonathon Sawyer, between bear hugs from friends and colleagues congratulating him for winning the award for Best Chef: Great Lakes. “The hospitality here is so on par with anything being done in New York, and the staying power of some of these chefs is undeniable. And we might not be the first to do something, but six months after a concept hits in New York, we’ll put it through the wringer, and it stays.”
Standing next to Sawyer is St. Louis chef Gerard Craft, who we recently profiled, and who was named Best Chef: Midwest. “This is for all the towns that have been forgotten around the Midwest, where some of the highest level of cooking is being done.” He shouts out guys like Kevin Nashan, Kevin Willman and Josh Galliano as chefs to pay attention to in the region. “What we’re doing in Cleveland is not what we could do 10 years ago, or today, in Brooklyn,” says Sawyer. “We can do whatever we want to do, and tonight is validation for all of it.” Sawyer’s win is particularly noteworthy in that he had faced chefs from Chicago, including Andrew Zimmerman of Sepia, Curtis Duffy of Grace and Erling Wu-Bower of Nico Osteria. We’re interrupted by shameless selfie-taker Daniel Boulud, who grabs Sawyer for a photo opp. “I’m going to mouth-kiss him,” jokes Craft before making his way to the scrum.
One of the first awards given last night was for Rising Star Chef of the Year, which recognizes a chef 30 years or younger and is considered one of the most highly coveted. “I’d like to thank my parents, who I have not seen in 10 years,” says Jessica Largey, standing at the podium to a great roar from the chef-centric crowd. Largey earned her praise by working for six-plus years under David Kinch at the two-Michelin-starred Bay Area restaurant Manresa. “When I met David we got along instantly,” she says of her mentor. “We understand what each other wants out of the food.” We joke about whether she is going to quit tomorrow. You know, open a new place. Branch out. “This thing kind of unlocks things,” she says, holding the medal with a smile.
Here is a complete list of the winners.
Best New Restaurant: Bâtard, NYC
Outstanding Baker: Jim Lahey, Sullivan Street Bakery, NYC
Outstanding Bar Program: The Violet Hour, Chicago
Outstanding Chef: Michael Anthony, Gramercy Tavern, NYC
Outstanding Pastry Chef: Christina Tosi, Momofuku, NYC
Outstanding Restaurant: Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Pocantico Hills, NY
Outstanding Restaurateur: Donnie Madia, One Off Hospitality Group (Blackbird, Avec, The Publican, etc.), Chicago
Outstanding Service: The Barn at Blackberry Farm, Walland, TN
Outstanding Wine Program: A16, San Francisco
Outstanding Wine, Beer, or Spirits Professional: Rajat Parr, Mina Group, San Francisco
Rising Star Chef: Jessica Largey, Manresa, Los Gatos, CA
Best Chefs in America
Great Lakes: Jonathon Sawyer, Greenhouse Tavern, Cleveland
Mid-Atlantic: Spike Gjerde, Woodberry Kitchen, Baltimore
Midwest: Gerard Craft, Niche, Clayton, MO
New York City: Mark Ladner, Del Posto
Northeast: Barry Maiden, Hungry Mother, Cambridge, MA
Northwest: Blaine Wetzel, The Willows Inn on Lummi Island, Lummi Island, WA
South: Alon Shaya, Domenica, New Orleans
Southeast: Jason Stanhope, FIG, Charleston, SC
Southwest: Aaron Franklin, Franklin Barbecue, Austin
West: Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski, State Bird Provisions, San Francisco
75 Seats and Under: Project: Brindille, Chicago; Design Firm: Bureau of Architecture and Design; Designers: Tom Nahabedian and James Gorski
76 Seats and Over: Project: Workshop Kitchen + Bar, Palm Springs, CA; Design Firm: SOMA; Designers: Michel Abboud