Jean Banchets Vs. James Beards: Why Chicago Embraces Its Own Awards Ceremony

This Sunday marked the 17th annual Jean Banchet Awards, the only Chicago-based awards presentation that honors the city's own food and drink talent. Between cocktail attire, flowing champagne and an edge-of-seat experience for audience nominees, it's easy to liken this event to another awards ceremony for which Chicago has become known: the James Beard Awards, which recently announced the Windy City as its host town through 2021.

Still, there are some differences between the two. "The Jean Banchets are still their own thing and have their own brand of humor," says Meg Galus, who took home this year's award for Best Pastry Chef with her work at Boka, Momotaro and Swift & Sons. "The jokes Michael Muser is telling up there on stage wouldn't make sense to the Beards audience, and that's cool — tonight is all about the community and fraternity of our city."

She's of course referring to host Michael Muser — general manager and partner of Grace restaurant — who took the emcee role as an opportunity to commend the Chicago dining industry, while also casting a spotlight on references that only local insiders would get. Take, for example, the video slide of Boka partner Kevin Boehm alongside a photo of George Michael while "Careless Whisper" blasted over the sound system (he had a point — the resemblance is uncanny). And then there was the three-person sketch on Ed Debevic's, a Chicagoland restaurant lauded for the snarky service and questionable countertop dance moves of its service team and for its kitschy 1950s diner décor.

Kicked off in 2002 by the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and pastry chef Alicia Boada, the awards honor the late Jean Banchet, a Chicago chef credited with getting the city on the radar of culinary enthusiasts worldwide. Nominations are similar to the Beards in that anyone can throw a name in the hat and a committee will narrow down the list — and that's when things take a turn. While more than 500 selected individuals help to determine the list of nominees and winners for the Beards, it's an industry vote that decides the winners for the Jean Banchets — an honor that the nominees and winners take to heart. "It hits closer to home because it's your close, immediate peers who are selecting you," says Cara Sandoval of Oriole, which won for Best New Restaurant. "When we started to create the restaurant, we wrote down a list of goals, and at the very top of it was 'to be admired by our peers.' To win this award means a lot to us."

A few other differences between the two shows reveal themselves in the awards categories. While the Jean Banchets consist of only 14 awards as compared with 21 for the Beards, they make room for honors like Best Ethnic Restaurant, Best Neighborhood Restaurant and Best Alternative Dining Restaurant — a category new to the ceremony this year. "They cover the gamut of establishments here in Chicago, whereas the Beards tend to focus on just the upper echelon of restaurants," says Charlie McKenna of Dixie, which won for Best Restaurant Design. "There are so many restaurants out there that do things so well but that might not have the backing for PR or marketing teams to really get them out there. It's great for those people to get recognized."

Connie Simms-Kincaid, whose 5 Loaves Eatery won for Best Ethnic Restaurant, agrees. "Having this category helps in giving us all more of a chance to get in with everyone else," says Simms-Kincaid, who opened the Southside breakfast spot 12 years ago. "It's been a hard roll because there are a lot of situations going on in the neighborhood, but it's been the greatest challenge of my whole life. I'd do it for free — and I have."

Best Sommelier is another title specific to Sunday's ceremony — similar, some would argue, to that of the Beards' Outstanding Wine Program. But for winner Rachel Driver Speckan of City Winery, placing the emphasis on the person makes all the difference. "The sommelier encompasses so much more, especially these days," she says. "You're expected to know front of house, back of house, operations, wine, beer, spirits, tea and coffee, while also needing to be ready to jump into management tasks, run food and serve tables. It's much more than buying wine and having iconic producers on your list."

It's people like these that continue to remind Osteria Langhe's Cameron Grant — who was up for Best Rising Chef this year — that hope is alive and well in Chicago, a city the Edinburgh native has made home these past five years. "The people here believe, they're willing to take risks, and they're excited about food — and that's really exciting as a restaurant owner," says Grant, who launched a second restaurant and a pasta company this year. "The Beards are the best awards to win, and they're super fun to be a part of, but ultimately it all comes from being in Chicago. Dreams can happen here."