Chefs Clean Up Real Nice For The James Beard Awards

On his walk down the red carpet outside the Lyric Opera of Chicago, New York chef Marcus Samuelsson is wearing an equally red jacket. "I bought this blazer at a store downtown — it's Yves Saint Laurent," says Samuelsson, whose stunning outfit also includes a black tie, black trousers, a pair of white sneakers and an old vest that once belonged to his grandfather, which he wears for good luck.

It's the night of the annual James Beard Foundation Awards gala, the so-called "Oscars of food" and also that rarest of special occasions when chefs from around the country cast aside their traditional sauce-splattered white coats and put on something snazzier. And like a movie star soaking up the spotlight, Samuelsson is fielding questions about his dapper attire with the proper amount of modesty. "This is just vintage clothing and old Converse," he says. "I was cooking in Lagos this weekend, so I just got off an 18-hour plane ride from Nigeria. I'm happy to be here — I wouldn't miss celebrating the Beard Awards for the world."

Invites to the yearly event describe the dress code as "black tie," but not everyone goes the ultra-formal route. "This is a very dark, dark blue suit, so I'm pulling something over on these people," quips Phil Rosenthal, star of the James Beard Award–winning TV program I'll Have What Phil Is Having. (Food Republic's parent company Zero Point Zero produces the show.) "I feel like a rebel!"

Rosenthal, though, is hardly an outlier on this night. Some other guy is wearing denim overalls beneath his sport coat. Call it farm to banquet table.

Suffice it to say, fashion isn't the point of these proceedings, but it often factors into the storyline. During her opening remarks, the celebrity host, TV chef Carla Hall, acknowledges all her contemporaries in the audience wearing "those suits you don't like to wear." She goes on to joke about donning a "dress made of meat." Throughout the evening, Hall changes costumes several times — nothing on the level of carnal-themed couture, however.

It's hard to imagine another event of this magnitude, save for perhaps the annual Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, that boasts a more impressive landscape of formal attire and facial hair.

Some chefs approach their clothing with as much creative license as they do their menus. Eventual Best Chef-Northwest winner Renee Erickson of Seattle's the Whale Wins, for instance, shows up in a lovely Antoni & Alison dress, which she gives a personal twist. "I actually have it on backwards because I like this side better — the pockets work both ways so it doesn't really matter," Erickson says. "I wanted to wear something comfy this year, and I wanted to buy something that I would wear again — not just a black-tie kind of dress, but something I can wear whenever."

Erickson's chef de cuisine, Marie Rutherford, meanwhile, is sporting a Japanese-style kimono with chrysanthemums in her hair. "The thing about a kimono that's great is that no one's going to know that you're 'pitting out' because you're so nervous and happy," says Rutherford.

We'd be remiss to not mention all the chefs and restaurant people wearing actual beards to the Beard Awards. In fact, it's hard to imagine another event of this magnitude, save for perhaps the annual Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, that boasts a more impressive landscape of formal attire and facial hair.

The unofficial award for Best Beard at this year's Beard Awards goes to Robert McAdams of the design firm Land and Sea Dept., which the Beard foundation has honored for its work on Chicago's Cherry Circle Room. The heavily bearded group also includes scruffy designers Jon Martin, Peter Toalson and Cody Hudson.

At the podium, McAdams even mentions the facial hair as part his acceptance speech: "Thank you to the James Beard Foundation for recognizing our beards — and our design."

As for his own exceptionally hairy face, McAdams suggests it's actually a bit shorter than usual. "I trimmed it just for tonight," he says.

For many attendees, the conclusion of the yearly Beard Awards is just the beginning of a familiar fashion cycle.

"I bought this for last year's Beards, and I don't think I've worn it since," says restaurateur Rob Katz of Chicago's Boka Group, dressed in a Hugo Boss tuxedo. "I just don't wear tuxedos a lot. But I hope I get to wear it again next year."